Criterion Sunday 499: Germania anno zero (aka Deutschland im Jahre Null) (Germany Year Zero, 1948)

After two Italian films (Rome Open City filmed during WW2, and Paisan after it), the third in Rossellini’s “War Trilogy” turns to the bombed-out ruins of Germany, with not a word of Italian spoken throughout. And somehow it manages to be not just the bleakest of the trilogy but perhaps amongst just about any film. That’s not evoked by anything graphic, though, but merely through the pathos of this character he follows, a young boy called Edmund (Edmund Moeschke) who is torn between childhood and the need if not the desire to be a man and help his impoverished family. In the background there are all kinds of hints towards the kind of behaviour that flourishes in this environment — albeit none ever spelled out, but left as rather disturbing little asides — such as of women and girls like Christl turning to prostitution, and of predatory older men. The most disturbing characters are probably thus Edmund’s former teacher Herr Henning (Erich Gühne) and a mysterious almost aristocratic figure he seems to be sending boys to (it’s unclear exactly what’s happening there), but who seem to express their feelings pretty clearly in the way they caress Edmund. Henning is still openly devoted to Hitler and has Edmund flog recordings of the Führer to occupying troops on the down low, while feeding him lines about sacrificing the weak to ensure the strong can survive, which gives Edmund ideas when he sees his father slowly dying and drives him to the film’s denouement, a bleak trawl back through everything we’ve seen as Edmund looks for some kind of absolution. Even more so than in Rome, perhaps, this is a city of bleak finality and that’s where the film leaves Edmund and us as viewers.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Rossellini, Max Kolpé and Carlo Lizzani; Cinematographer Robert Juillard; Starring Edmund Moeschke, Erich Gühne, Ernst Pittschau; Length 73 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 5 February 2022.

NZIFF 2021: Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse (Mr Bachmann and His Class, 2021)

Following up with the last few reviews from films screening at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, this Polish-German co-production has had a UK cinematic release recently, and it’s certainly the kind of diverting, prettily shot and slightly magical comedy-drama that could do well. In the context of a festival, it feels like a little bit of whimsy, but we all need that from time to time.


Not many documentary films earn their comparisons with the work of Frederick Wiseman, but this one does. It quietly, and of course without narration or context, shows the work of the titular teacher in a small yet diverse German school (though we do see one or two of the other teachers at work, making me wonder if the filmmakers were perhaps undecided about who to focus on initially). Mr Bachmann is a man close to retirement but who still cares passionately about all his kids, who come from a variety of backgrounds (Turkish, Bulgarian, Kazakh, and more) and I guess one of the themes is finding a common ground among all these cultures. We see classes on all kinds of subjects but the film’s focus is on bringing the individuals — not just the teacher but also his students — closer to us, on dramatising what motivates them and maybe in the end to convince us that the kids aren’t all bad. Certainly it feels like a film that finds the spark at the heart of being a teacher (and I do wonder how it would play to them) but the running time rushes past.

Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Maria Speth; Writers Speth and Reinhold Vorschneider; Cinematographer Vorschneider; Length 217 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Sunday 21 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 454: Europa (aka Zentropa, 1991)

One of Lars von Trier’s earlier works, back when his focus was very much on being a wunderkind behind the camera and doing tricksy things with deep focus honouring his classical heroes, while also setting the stage to some extent for Guy Maddin and others, but for me it all lacks the thrill of Maddin. It certainly achieves a certain textural depth, with the graininess of the colour tinted film and the deep contrasts of the black-and-white working quite nicely with one another. The plot is a bit Hitchcockian, with its trains and machinations and a certain post-war gloominess about the idea of Europe along with Germany’s place within it. I didn’t feel an enormous amount of attachment to the characters or the story but as an exercise in style it’s persuasive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lars von Trier; Writers von Trier and Niels Vørsel; Cinematographers Henning Bendtsen, Edward Kłosiński and Jean-Paul Meurisse; Starring Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Udo Kier, Ernst-Hugo Järegård, Max von Sydow; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 22 August 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1998).

Criterion Sunday 437: Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Gray (Vampyr, 1932)

I can imagine this film at the time seeming quite quaint and old-fashioned. It very much still feels like a silent film: most of the exposition is done via text-heavy images of book pages like a silent film’s intertitles and there’s very little in the way of spoken dialogue. It also, even for the period, feels rather slow with a minimum of plot drama; much of the film revolves around the atmospherics that Dreyer and his production designer and cinematographer are able to evoke. It is the very cinematic expression of the uncanny/unheimlich, as many of the images are filmed with a heavy grain, almost washed out and shot through veils, like the title character’s dream (which is after all the subtitle of the full German original title). It’s a morbid, imagistic and fantastic dream or nightmare, a reverie of the waking dead, and vampirism just seems like part of the heavy folk stylistics being conjured here, only added to by the heavy somnabulistic movements of the amateur aristocratic socialite (Nicolas de Gunzberg, credited as Julian West) in the lead role. Certainly the vampirism doesn’t seem to connote the blood-sucking of capitalists as it can in more modern interpretations, but instead evokes the sense of an ancient rural curse and restless vengeful spirits. It’s all very mysterious and beautiful, whatever inspires the horror, and while it doesn’t conjure the same kind of frightfulness as modern works, it has its own sense of the uncanny.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer; Writers Christen Jul and Dreyer (based on the collection of short stories In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu); Cinematographer Rudolph Maté; Starring Nicolas de Gunzberg [as “Julian West”], Maurice Schutz, Sybille Schmitz, Rena Mandel; Length 73 minutes.

Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Sunday 29 June 2003 and at the BFI Southbank, London, Monday 19 March 2012 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 13 June 2021).

Criterion Sunday 405: Die 3 Groschen-Oper (The Threepenny Opera, aka L’Opéra de quat’sous, 1931)

There are two versions of this film by Pabst, filmed with different central casts but on the same sets on the same days. Both are included on the Criterion edition, but I watched the German one, and after also watching ten minutes of the French version, I do believe the former to be the better. The shadows are deeper and darker, and the lead character of Mackie Messer as played by Rudolf Forster is so much sterner and more forbidding a figure, plus he has a very evilly twirlable moustache unlike Albert Préjean’s clean-faced boyishly roguish criminal in the French version. Of course, I imagine we’re all familiar with the “Mack the Knife” song (“Die Moritat” in German), but aside from the songs the German film feels almost eerily devoid of sound. In this respect it differs from the kind of filmmaking, with orchestral scores to soften the empty moments, which we have since become used to — although it is perhaps also a choice, to emphasise the solitude and darkness of this vision of Victorian London, and the dangers within it. The greatest danger is withheld until the final shots, when Bertolt Brecht’s darkly cynical punchline is unveiled and of course it’s that capitalism is the greatest villain. Perhaps this seems a little old-fashioned, but it still has power.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Aside from the French alternate version, which in some respects could be considered a separate film, there’s a 20 minute comparison of the two versions by academic Charles O’Brien, which is very illuminating about both how it was done, but also the different choices Pabst and his collaborators made in bringing it to the screen, including lightening the tone and literally lighting the set more brightly, giving it a softer more comedic feeling than the darker German original.
  • There’s also a strange and very brief introduction from a 1950s reissue in which Fritz Rasp (who played Peachum) and Ernst Busch (the street singer of “Die Moritat”) look on from a theatre box and Busch sings the original final lyrics. It creates a mood, for sure.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director G. W. Pabst; Writers Béla Balázs, Léo Lania and Ladislaus Vajda (based on the play by Bertolt Brecht with music by Kurt Weill); Cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner; Starring Rudolf Forster, Carola Neher, Reinhold Schünzel, Lotte Lenya; Length 110 minutes [German version].

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 6 March 2021.

Criterion Sunday 358: Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1929)

Pandora’s Box is a fantastic film and an enduring screen classic largely for Louise Brooks, who is — and this is a term which may be over-used but is, for once, fairly accurate — iconic here: beautiful, transfixing, making the film twice as good as it already is. She plays Lulu, a woman who uses her abundant charms to win over people but who finds herself nevertheless on the back foot thanks to the constant, overbearing demands made on her by the patriarchal systems of control within her society. It looks gorgeous and it’s never less than engrossing, as she gets into all kinds of trouble, largely coming from her lack of money and education — the film is very pointed about class — and tries desperately, yet with effortless grace, to move away from those forces of capital and control that hold her down.

(Written on 19 November 2017.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director G.W. Pabst; Writers Pabst and Ladislaus Vajda (based on the plays Die Büsche der Pandora and Erdgeist by Frank Wedekind); Cinematographer Günther Krampf; Starring Louise Brooks, Fritz Körtner, Francis Lederer, Carl Goetz, Alice Roberts; Length 133 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 19 November 2017 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 1998).

Dreamaway (2018)

A recent film from Egypt (co-produced by Germany, with a German co-director and cinematographer) is this piece which sits somewhere between an evocatively artful documentary and something fictionalised, though quite where the boundaries between the two lie is open to interpretation. It was one of my favourite films of the London Film Festival in 2018, so I’m saddened there hasn’t been much distribution of it since then because I think it’s really interesting and beautiful, and I wonder if holiday resorts in the age of Covid-19 look somewhat similar right now?


Although billed as a documentary, Dreamaway (as it’s styled on screen, though often referred to as Dream Away) lies somewhere just between that and fiction, presenting stories of real people in a real place, but with just a slight hint that these are fictionalised versions, or reconstructions, workshopped with a non-professional cast (albeit people who have done and experienced the real life depicted). There are all these hints throughout that what we’re seeing is at one stage removed from pure observational documentary filmmaking — a sage-like man in a monkey costume asking questions from the back of a truck, or all the key characters trudging through the desert in search of nothing like the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Partly this may be to stay on the right side of the censors, for after all it’s hardly the rosiest portrait of the Egyptian tourist industry at Sharm-el-Shaikh (we barely see any tourists at all, as all these service workers turn down beds, DJ music, and do fitness routines for an audience of no one). But it’s a canny move in a film that has much of the same feeling as Alma Har’el’s films (Bombay Beach or LoveTrue), somewhere at the interstices of reality and make-believe — then again, a lot of the world it depicts could be said to inhabit that same duality, creating this fake English-speaking zone of no conflict in a country consumed by it in recent years.

Dreamaway film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Marouan Omara مروان عمارة and Johanna Domke; Cinematographer Jakob Beurle; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 19 October 2018.

Drift (2017)

Rounding out my week of German-language women’s cinema is this slow cinema piece that barely features any language at all, often preferring the movement of water in the ocean to its human protagonists. It’s not perhaps going to be to all tastes, but it’s very much to mine!


I love a bit of slow cinema, but it’s no simple matter making a good work in this style; it’s not just a matter of pointing a camera at a swelling ocean and letting it roll, even though there are periods throughout this film where that feels like all there is — and certainly people reviewing this film who could not be more bored it seems (though I’m surprised they even watched it in the first place). The sequence of shots of ocean swells — roiling, calm, sun-dappled, moonlit, and all variations in between — that takes place for a significant stretch of the film feels a little like a minimalist film by someone like James Benning (though the final sequence rather more directly recalls Michael Snow), but it has its own sense of poetry. The sounds overlaid (of water obviously) create a beautiful, almost hallucinatory, series of shots in which I myself drifted off at times, but of which I can recall the various textures of the water, the sunlight catching corners of the waves and glinting out flashes of blinding light while on the soundtrack what sounded like water running down a drain as a wood fire burned nearby (it was all rather impressionistic, but that was what I heard), or at another time the bright glare of moonlight in the sky casting a faint trail of light across the waves. This, however, is a sequence that links two sections of the film with human protagonists, who themselves are connected somewhat yet find themselves drifting apart. There are a lot of exquisitely framed and lit shots of quiet (or disquiet perhaps), and a tangible sense of a spiritual movement. Obviously it’s not to all tastes, but those who like this kind of thing will love it.

Drift film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Helena Wittmann; Starring Theresa George, Josefina Gill; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 2 May 2019.

Women Filmmakers: Angela Schanelec

Angela Schanelec is not a filmmaker I’d ever heard of before a 2018 retrospective on the Mubi streaming platform; indeed, I’m not aware that any of her films has had a release in the UK and I imagine even festival screenings have been fairly scarce. Her profile sadly is not high enough for her latest film, I Was Home, But (2019) to have had more than one or two screenings last year, but its Ozu-referencing title certainly makes me excited to see it.

Schanelec was born in Aalen, Germany in 1962, and trained in Frankfurst in the early-80s as a stage actress (she acts too in her own film Afternoon, an image from which accompanies this post), though she studied filmmaking at the Berlin Film and Television Academy. As such, with directors like Christian Petzold, she is grouped as part of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ of filmmakers. She made her first graduate film in the mid-90s and a few other features in the late-90s before the first film I pick up below, the earliest to feature in the Mubi retrospective of her work.

Having now seen a number of her films, Schanelec feels like a filmmaker whose oeuvre I admire and enjoy as a whole, more than I do any of her individual films (but I’d probably go for Marseille, if I must pick one). Schanelec’s films have a consistent approach to the construction of narrative which is, well, a little bit vague and can be difficult to pick up: a focus on moments that are picked out, joined elliptically, with no intertitles or contextualisation. She’s a fascinating director, and perhaps part of her low profile is just that they can be difficult films to fully get into, and that will be a throughline in the reviews below. However, she’s clearly a great talent and one of the finest working German directors.

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Angela Schanelec”

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).

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