Criterion Sunday 490: Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire, 1987)

I find it easy to resist this film, its blend of poetic voiceover, impressionist use of colour and black-and-white, and reflections on the nature of freedom in a still-divided Berlin. But watching it after so many years since having last seen it, I am still forcefully struck with the underlying melancholy. Bruno Ganz is one of a number of angels who seem to be assigned to shadow a handful of people in the city of Berlin; we see (and hear the thoughts of) those he follows, but we also see his fellow angels standing imperceptibly and calmly over the shoulders of others he passes. This all seems to stand in as a conceit by which to evoke Berlin itself, and the film is in a lineage of city symphonies (that prominently includes, of course, Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 silent one about the same city), but it’s a powerful one, suggesting a higher purpose that has been severed somehow. Broken people shuffle amongst ruins and building sites, and there’s a provisional nature to what everyone is doing, a holding pattern. That’s all in the atmosphere, and is barely even expressed, but we have Peter Falk playing himself after a fashion as an actor, grounded and gruff, while Solveig Dommartin is a French trapeze artist, flying lightly through the air, and these seem to be like poles within which Bruno Ganz’s Dammiel tries to make his way. There’s a choice, and a movement towards the end, which promises a sequel (there is one; I’ve not ever seen it), and I’m not sure how substantial it all is really, but it feels somehow defining of an era and remains a beautiful film — and it seems appropriate that it was shot by the cinematographer of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast — however much I try to cynically resist it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wim Wenders; Writers Wenders, Peter Handke and Richard Reitinger; Cinematographer Henri Alekan; Starring Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk, Curt Bois; Length 127 minutes.

Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, April 1998 and again at home (Kanopy streaming), Wellington, Sunday 26 December 2021.

Criterion Sunday 411: Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

Not really sure where to start with this one, but of course it must be understood that it’s a TV series, not a movie; it’s not designed to be watched as a single unit, and indeed I watched it in five sittings over the past week and a half. That said, it feels like a full expression of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s vision, with the carnivalesque, the nasty and bitter, the rank misogyny of desperate men, and the endless forbearance of easily discarded women.

Its setting is late-20s Berlin, and though the rise of the Nazi Party is somewhere in the background and is rarely far from the viewer’s mind (not least because the entire enterprise is sort of a state of the diseased nation piece in allegorical miniature), it’s rarely explicitly mentioned in the film. The set design drips with brown sepia tones, mostly being set in a series of slummy apartments and a bar where recently-released criminal Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) consorts with odious types like Gottfried John’s Reinhold and Frank Buchrieser’s Meck. For the first half he avers the criminal life, trying on a series of ‘respectable’ professions like selling shoelaces or hawking newspapers (albeit the Völkischer Beobachtung, the Nazi paper), until eventually he is ground down enough by fate to find himself pulled back into the work of the criminals he’s surrounded by — that much is hardly a surprise. He remains, however absurdly it may seem, attractive to women and a number of them (the actors all familiar from Fassbinder’s other films) move through his life, as we learn of the reason he was in prison in the first place, and the repeated insistence on his crime (the murder of an earlier girlfriend), makes it clear that he is not only no saint, but also that part of this world is a toxic misogyny that is normalised as part of the operation of society. That doesn’t exactly make it easy to watch, though, however much it may be clear this is Fassbinder’s point (and presumably of Döblin, the original author).

Visually, though, it’s quite something. Aside from the set design, there are many bravura pieces of filmmaking, long takes choreographing actors entering and exiting the frame almost balletically, or shots through cages and tracking around subterranean settings. It sweeps you up in this bitter, nasty world very easily and pulls you through what amounts to almost 15 hours of a descent into madness, made literal in the final epilogue episode, as all the incipient drama in Franz’s life become a whirling mess of hallucinatory drama soundtracked by fragments of music from across the canon (from Leonard Cohen and Kraftwerk to snatches of opera). It’s certainly an achievement of sorts, however little it feels like something I’d want to revisit in a hurry, and it’s worth the time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Rainer Werner Fassbinder (based on the novel by Alfred Döblin); Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger; Starring Günter Lamprecht, Gottfried John, Franz Buchrieser, Barbara Sukowa, Hanna Schygulla, Brigitte Mira; Length 902 minutes (in 14 episodes).

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 4 March [episodes 1-2], Friday 5 March [episodes 3-6] and Thursday 11 March [episodes 7-9], and at a friend’s home (YouTube streaming), Friday 12 March [episodes 10-12] and Sunday 14 March 2021 [episodes 13-14].

In der Dämmerstunde Berlin de l’aube à la nuit (1980)

As part of my Belgian week, which has quickly become more about Belgian co-productions made and set in other countries, we move to Berlin in the late-1970s with this strange document of a vanished era, not widely available (screened in 16mm at the Deptford Cinema when I saw it), but capturing a real feeling for a place. The bilingual title hints at its dual origins, and the filmmaker is Belgian, which gives it that outsider’s-view feel.


This strange piece of celluloid feels like a time capsule from a different place, an irretrievable time, the alien landscape of Berlin in the late-1970s, with the Wall very much in evidence, train journeys that just end abruptly even as we see the track stretching out ahead of the camera, and little walks around town that the filmmaker takes (the back of her head becomes very familiar), what I suppose we would today call psychogeography. Occasionally we hear voices from those talking about post-war Germany, from a Jewish bookseller determined to return to the country which treated him so badly, and from old ladies talking about Hitler. But for the most part this is a densely-textured journey film, broken up by quotes and snatches of opera, and the presence of a clanking 16mm cinema projector at the back of the room where I saw it, seemed to lend it an almost spiritual quality, of a black-and-white document stolen from history.

CREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Annik Leroy; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at Deptford Cinema, London, Saturday 23 March 2019.

Two Films by Ulrike Ottinger: Ticket of No Return (1979) and Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (1989)

Though Ulrike Ottinger is probably one of the key female figures in the New Germany Cinema that sprung up in the late-1960s, and one who started directing her own films by the early-1970s, she was a filmmaker who until recently was fairly unknown to me. I’ve seen three of her features just this year, and have already written about the epic documentary travelogue Chamisso’s Shadow (2016). Like a lot of filmmakers who are drawn to documentary, there’s a lot of it even in her fiction features, particularly the Mongolian-set Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (with its very careful use of three different languages in its original title). Even the 1979 film I deal with below has little elements of real life, as I gather that one of the characters was a real-life homeless woman well-known in the area at the time, and it wilfully dispenses with narrative expectations as its central character gets even more messy (the German title translates as “diary of a drinker”). It was screened as part of an online film festival recently, and I look forward to catching up with more of Ottinger’s work.

Continue reading “Two Films by Ulrike Ottinger: Ticket of No Return (1979) and Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (1989)”

Neun Leben hat die Katze (The Cat Has Nine Lives, 1968)

Just a quick extra review of a late-60s New German Cinema experiment that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but still impressed me as something odd and interesting. It was presented as part of a touring programme in the UK of less well-known films by women directors breaking the mould.


What a very strange film, largely due to its experimental narrative form, which intercuts these stories of women (Katharina and Anne) in a sort of associative way, just little shards or shreds of narrative, sometimes representing their fantasies as far as I can tell, sometimes humorous vignettes. It’s very hard to describe really, except that it seems to present a subjective view of women’s experiences that is both of a piece with other experiments in the New German Cinema but also quite apart from the usual patriarchal constructions of desire. I’d want to watch it again before claiming to understand any more about it, but it certainly has its heady late-60s quality.

The Cat Has Nine Lives film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ula Stöckl; Cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann; Starring Liane Hielscher, Kristine De Loup; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 7 August 2018.

Criterion Sunday 279: Der junge Törless (Young Törless, 1966)

This was one of those early feature films in the New German Cinema, in which Schlöndorff turned his elegantly monochrome camera inward on German society, through the story of a young man at an Austrian boarding school in the early part of the century. It’s not so much about a boy’s coming of age, as it is about him learning about the depths of his own and his society’s cruelty towards others, about becoming institutionalised, seeking explanations (at one point, through imaginary numbers in mathematics) for the irrational desires of the heart. That said, it all moves fairly slowly and methodically through its story, and though the acting is rather frosty and stilted, I think that’s how it’s supposed to come across. I think I admired it more than I loved it, but it’s a fascinating film all the same.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Volker Schlöndorff; Writers Schlöndorff and Herbert Asmodi (based on the novel Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß “The Confusions of Young Törless” by Robert Musil); Cinematographer Franz Rath; Starring Mathieu Carrière, Marian Seidowsky; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 7 December 2019.

Criterion Sunday 234: Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1979)

I do sort of understand what’s going on here in this strange, carnivalesque, alternately gleeful and bleak evocation of pre-war and wartime Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Its protagonist is a young child, Oskar (David Bennent), who has foreseen his future and decided he wants to remain in the body of a 3-year-old (well, an 11-year-old for the purposes of the actor anyway), using the drum of the title to beat out his own tune as he first reacts against the encroaching Nazification and then finds himself dragged in as well. There are all kinds of sprightly filmmaking touches, the hand-cranked sped-up film of the intro flashing back many decades, the absurdist plot and character details, and of course the ridiculous perversity of this teenager-in-a-child’s-body growing, learning, reading and falling in love. Yet I never can quite connect with him or care about his story: he’s a nasty character — and yes, of course he is, that entirely makes sense — and his story is one with parallels in the bleak hopelessness of the Nazi era, but his childish, imp-like quality is just incessant, and it becomes grating. I never much take to magic realism or carnivalesque absurdity, and there’s plenty of the latter on show here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Volker Schlöndorff; Writers Schlöndorff, Jean-Claude Carrière and Franz Seitz (based on the novel by Günter Grass); Cinematographer Igor Luther; Starring David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler; Length 163 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 1 January 2019.

Criterion Sunday 206: Lola (1981)

I’d seen this before when I was younger, but perhaps I was an idiot, because I remember almost nothing about this film, and yet it is so very striking. It feels like finally, after years of flirting, Fassbinder completely nails the Sirkian aesthetic, in all its garish heady blend of colours and framing and little satirical nudges about Germany society in the 1970s. It’s a story of corrupt small town politicians and developers, and of course it’s also about sex and desire too. It’s a venal world, and apparently little is going to change that, but Armin Mueller-Stahl’s bureaucrat tries his best all the same. Every successive shot is a masterclass in lighting, all saturated colours and a strange blue highlight used for Mueller-Stahl’s eyes whenever he’s in his office. It’s a gorgeous film about — what else — but moral turpitude and the baseness of the human spirit.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Writers Fassbinder, Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer; Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger; Starring Barbara Sukowa, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Mario Adorf; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 April 2018 (and before that on VHS in the university library, Wellington, March 2000).

Criterion Sunday 205: Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (Veronika Voss, 1982)

One of Fassbinder’s final films (indeed, the last to be released in his lifetime), this is a dreamlike reverie of soft black-and-white, specifically an hommage to a presumed golden era of Hollywood (and Nazi-era) filmmaking, flashbacks to which are all starry-eyed lights and slinky fashion. The star of these films is the title character (Rosel Zech), who a decade after World War II is struggling to get work and struggling to keep her fragile sense of identity. She meets a sports reporter (Hilmar Thate) who doesn’t know who she is, and strikes up an affair, during which he discovers she’s being drugged by a rapacious doctor (Annemarie Düringer), and resolves to try and free her. These genre elements though are largely interwoven into a story that’s about the dangerous addiction not just to morphine but to fame itself, with a subtle through line of satire that is difficult to laugh at given the suffocating atmosphere of much of the film. It’s a more admirable piece than one I genuinely love, but thus is often the way with Fassbinder.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Writers Fassbinder, Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer; Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger; Starring Rosel Zech, Hilmar Thate, Cornelia Froboess, Annemarie Düringer; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 March 2018 (and before that on VHS at the university library, Wellington, April 2000).

Criterion Sunday 204: Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1978)

She’s an attractive woman, Hanna Schygulla is (as the title character), and that’s only one of the things she uses to get ahead in the post-World War II mess of West Germany. Maria’s dogged pursuit of her goals, flirting with other men before returning to her pre-War husband (who returns unexpectedly even after she’d given up on him), makes her a potent symbol of Germany in the period, and this film thus functions as something of an allegory. Certainly those closing scenes, soundtracked by the insistent voice of a football commentator narrating a successful German game, drives that home. It may not be Fassbinder’s most flashy film, not the one perhaps with the greatest cult credentials, but it’s a wonderfully resonant piece, I think, underpinned by a great central performance by Schygulla.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Writers Peter Märthesheimer and Pea Fröhlich; Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus; Starring Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Löwitsch, Ivan Desny; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 18 March 2018 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1997, and at university, Wellington, March 2000).