Transit (2018)

Taking a brief break from my week’s theme of African cinema, I wanted to highlight a new release to UK cinemas this week which is one of my favourite films of the year I’ve seen so far, and which is definitely worth a trip to the cinema to see. The director’s previous film, Phoenix (2014), has already made it to the Criterion Collection (though it will be some time before a review of that makes it to my blog). However, he’s definitely a well-regarded contemporary German director worth watching.


For whatever reason, I’d not seen a Christian Petzold film before, but this is mesmerising work. In the early scenes, Georg (Franz Rogowski) is meeting a man at a café in Paris; there’s tension in the air as several police vans go hurtling past, and a sense that both these characters are being hunted; a plot is set in motion whereby Georg must deliver some documents to a fellow of theirs. So far, pretty standard thriller stuff, but then some dialogue suggests they are in flight from Germany and some unnamed authoritarian power, and suddenly you wonder if this is in fact the 1940s — there are no mobile phones in evidence and there’s none of that self-conscious recreation of the past you get with historical dramas (though there are some dowdy decaying hotel rooms with a faded sense of history to them), but the streets and the vehicles are modern, so there’s an immediate disconnect. Petzold exploits this beautifully, in updating a Nazi-era novel, to evoke an alternate reality which, sadly, doesn’t ever seem so very far from our own. We never do learn who people are running from — the characters here end up in Marseille desperately seeking passage via sea to Mexico or the US — or what exactly is the “cleansing” the fascists are enacting, but you never really need to know except that the characters live in fear. There aren’t many films that conjure a dystopia in a sunny French seaside city without the need for gloomy lighting or fascistic banners: this is our world, precisely unaltered and unadorned, but yet undeniably a dangerous place.

Transit film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Christian Petzold (based on the novel by Anna Seghers); Cinematographer Hans Fromm; Starring Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 10 August 2019.

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35 rhums (35 Shots of Rum, 2008)

Denis regular Alex Descas and this year’s Cannes Grand Prix-winning director Mati Diop take the key roles in this film, which remains one of my favourites of the decade. Much of my love for it is not so much in what happens as in how it unfolds — just the one scene in a backstreets Parisian bar soundtracked to the Commodores’ “Nightshift”, which is for me the emotional core of the film, seems to lay bare all the dynamics going on amongst these characters: a father, Lionel (Alex Descas); his daughter Jo (Mati Diop); an older woman and neighbour, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), who’s always been in love with the dad; and Grégoire Colin as Noé, who has a crush on Jo. They are all trapped a little bit, as neighbours in an apartment block, as people whose lives seem to be following a set path (in the case of Lionel, who drives trains, very literally so) and who don’t know what exactly they do want. There’s a sense of pain at getting older, but also a comfort in gestures like eating together, with the film opening and closing on images of rice cookers, the sort of symbolic centrepiece of shared family meals (and it’s no surprise, perhaps, to learn that an Ozu film was the inspiration for this one). I love the feeling of movement, the cautious emotional resonance, and the burnished look of the film. It’s a glorious ode to the richness of life and even a modern city symphony in its own way.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Claire Denis; Writer Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau; Cinematographer Agnès Godard; Starring Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Grégoire Colin, Nicole Dogue; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 26 May 2019 (and earlier at the Renoir, London, Sunday 26 July 2009).

Criterion Sunday 231: Das Testament des Doktor Mabuse (The Testament of Dr Mabuse, 1933)

Fritz Lang’s last film in Germany is this reprise of his silent film character, a venerable archetype of the genre (a mad scientist locked up for his criminal mastermindery). This film takes the character and creates a mystery thriller with another mad scientist who appears to have been possessed by the spirit of Dr Mabuse, inspired by Mabuse’s detailed writings into committing a series of heists and crimes. There’s a lot of gripping cross-cutting, and some genuinely thrilling scenes as characters look like they’re done for, many of which have been reprised in subsequent cinema history. It’s a top jaunt, and good fun too. Of course, there’s also a subtext about Nazis there if you want to find it (it may have been too early to be specifically about the rise of Hitler, but it’s certainly premonitory and presumably tapped into the stirrings within contemporary German society).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Fritz Lang; Writers Thea von Harbou and Lang; Cinematographers Karl Vash and Fritz Arno Wagner; Starring Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Otto Wernicke; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 25 June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 21 October 2018).

Meine Brüder und Schwestern im Norden (My Brothers and Sisters in the North, 2016)

In telling the story of a South Korean woman who travels to the North (via her German citizenship; it’s a German-produced film) and makes a documentary there, this film seems to know it hardly need do more than just point a camera and bear witness to a still largely-unseen society. The North Koreans we hear often brim with enthusiasm (for the cause, for their fellow citizens, for possible reunification one day, for their leader), their daily rituals filled with songs and dances — almost all of them mentioning their dear political leaders, present and past — but the director doesn’t mock or belittle them. It’s more a frank testament to the people she encounters in various places — not just Pyongyang but a smaller city on the coast, and rural settlements where people farm the land. There’s some of that same spirit that Joris Ivens captured in How Yukong Moved the Mountains (albeit that was about the Chinese Cultural Revolution). There’s also a simplicity to the style — lots of slowed-down tracking shots, beautiful landscape and skyline photography, interviews between director and workers. We get a sense of some of the way people live, in so far as we are allowed to perceive it directly. Quite how accurate it is may not be knowable but it’s a fascinating document nonetheless.

My Brothers and Sisters in the North film posterCREDITS
Director Cho Sung-hyung 조성형; Cinematographers Julia Daschner and Thomas Schneider; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 8 May 2017.

Toni Erdmann (2016)

It’s been quite the festival darling, and I can’t help but wonder if maybe one’s reaction to it really does depend on being in the right room filled with the right group of people reacting favourably. I mean, I hardly disliked Toni Erdmann (and even laughed at a number of sequences), but it doesn’t quite elicit from me the same rave reviews others have been giving it. Calling it a “comedy”, for a start, is a bit misleading, as like the other films by director Maren Ade I’ve seen (2009’s Everyone Else and 2003’s The Forest for the Trees) it’s essentially about a person profoundly failing to connect with other human beings, so there’s a pretty deep sense of pathos to it — but then, that wouldn’t be unusual for the comedy genre.

The title character is an alter ego of Winfried (Peter Simonischek), the father of corporate consultant Ines (Sandra Hüller), and the film’s centre of attention shifts between them, following him for the first section, then her, then him again. She has a client in Bucharest, and so, feeling like she needs some further direction in life, he arrives unannounced to visit her. He’s a practical joker, she’s a business woman, and that’s where the comedy really comes from: that sense of hyper-awareness about how his actions are being seen by her, and some of the biggest laughs come from the abject fear you can sense behind her eyes, though she remains outwardly composed for those around her. Yet for a film that sort of bases itself in the comedy of humiliation, and as someone for whom that humour (mostly found in the sitcom format) is among my least favourite things, it never feels quite as squirm-inducing as I worried it would become, and perhaps the length at which it allows its scenes to unfold help with that (it’s not a short film).

It touches on a lot of issues pertinent to the modern world, and sure, locating a malaise at the heart of corporate culture isn’t exactly startlingly new, but it does it very nicely all the same. The generational disconnect is explored winningly too. And even if it never quite struck me as a masterpiece (cf. also La La Land), I certainly enjoyed it and for all that the characters may have been bored at times (or rather, perhaps, filled with ennui), I never found it boring to watch.

Toni Erdmann film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Maren Ade; Cinematographer Patrick Orth; Starring Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek; Length 162 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 22 January 2017.

Alle Anderen (Everyone Else, 2009)

I suppose at one level nothing much really happens, nothing overtly melodramatic, but really everything does. There’s an entire relationship in these two hours — between Chris (Lars Eidinger) and Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr), on holiday in Italy — and for a change it’s a fairly believable one. It sort of channels the awkward, uncomfortable feeling you get when you’ve made a couple-y in-joke at an inappropriate moment in mixed company and your spouse glares at you and you shrink inside (well, that’s just Chris’s side). The extent to which you believe these two have a future probably depends on where you are yourself in respect to a relationship, but I’m inclined to the German Weltanschauung. I’m guessing hell is everyone else when you’re together (there’s a particularly dull second holidaying German couple introduced later on), or maybe it’s just these two. It’s a film that’s deeply suggestive (about love, about work, about possible futures) without ever tipping over into judgement.

Everyone Else film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Maren Ade; Cinematographer Bernhard Keller; Starring Birgit Minichmayr, Lars Eidinger; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 16 January 2017.

LFF 2016 Day Two: Wild, 13th and A Day for Women (all 2016)

It’s that time of year: time for the London Film Festival (LFF)! And while I’ve not been doing a good job of getting reviews up on my site recently aside from my regular Criterion watch, I thought I’d best share the snippets of the films I’ve been watching at the festival. It’s unlikely any of them will break out as great successes in the coming year, because my policy these last two years has been to go and see films I don’t think will get another screening (with one or two exceptions).

Day One of the LFF was Wednesday 5 October, with its big premiere being the opening gala of Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom which seems to be getting mixed reviews, though I shall go see it when it gets a proper release next month.

Day Two was Thursday 6 October, and I saw my first three films. Two of them I think are pretty obscure, but the Ava DuVernay documentary was always going to get a pretty strong release in the US election season and indeed, as I learned subsequent to purchasing my festival tickets, it’s already on Netflix.


Wild (2016)

Wild (2016, Germany, dir./wr. Nicolette Krebitz, DOP Reinhold Vorschneider)
There are some unsettling thematics being explored in this film about a young woman who is, essentially, in love with a wolf. Themes dealing with female sexuality, throwing off the burdens and expectations of bourgeois conformity, living outside the capitalist system, stuff like that. At times I felt the film wasn’t doing justice to all its ideas, but at other times it seemed pretty on the nose. Ania (Lilith Stangenberg, with the intensity of a young Sarah Polley) works as an IT person and general dogsbody at some kind of recycling company, while finding herself newly living alone and restless. The film has some nice little observations (all the women in the office picking up after their oafish boss Boris) and moments of great humour piercing the odd alienation that much of the film essays. It’s weird, but in a watchable way, and a provoking way.


13th (2016) 13th (2016, USA, dir. Ava DuVernay, wr. DuVernay/Spencer Averick, DOP Hans Charles/Kira Kelly)
The thesis of this new made-for-Netflix documentary is that the prison-industrial complex of the modern United States is effectively perpetuating slavery by another name (the constitutional amendment of the title rescinds slavery except for convicts). It’s difficult to mount any criticism of it as a film* because it’s so focused — through sadness, anger and despair — on driving its message home that it’s hard to look away. A range of activists, scholars and politicians (of whom, surprisingly, Newt Gingrich doesn’t come off as being even close to the worst) comment on the legacy of America’s bitterly divided racial history in creating a massively commercialised and exploitative system that in preying overwhelmingly on the poor (often with little interest in their culpability for their charged crimes) also preys overwhelmingly on people of colour, deracinating communities and continuing to deprive them of voice in opposing the system’s swift extension during the 80s and 90s. Well, DuVernay certainly provides this voice and I can only hope it reaches the people it needs to. Sure it sometimes seems like it’s going after Trump and his cronies (and why not) but neither Clinton exactly comes out slathered in glory, and Obama is largely notable by his absence in this story. It effectively folds in police brutality and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but also contextualises each as part of a history seemingly doomed to repeat. Sad but urgent stuff.

(* I only want to mention the endless gliding camera around its interview subjects; I found that technique distracting, but I daresay it works for Netflix, where it’s scheduled to appear on 7 October, and may many more see this film.)


Yom Lel Setat (A Day for Women, 2016)

يوم للستات Yom Lel Setat (A Day for Women) (2016, Egypt, dir. Kamla Abou Zekri كاملة أبو ذكري, wr. Hanaa Attia هناء عطية, DOP Nancy Abdel-Fattah نانسي عبدالفتاح)
Sometimes you can watch a film and the fact it exists and what it documents and the point of view it represents, the voice it’s presenting, is enough — to the extent that it hardly matters how ‘good’ a film it is. I guess that sounds like an apologia for not liking it, but really all I can say (not being Egyptian, not being a woman, not being a whole lot of things, a film writer not least) is that it’s not made for me, and that for what it sets out to do, it does well. It’s a melodrama, with some good, subtle performances (and some which seem less so), about a community along a small alleyway in a big city, and the local pool which opens to women only on Sunday, and brings them all together. I liked the shared stories, the way they all have to step carefully on makeshift stones over a deluged alley to get to their homes, the incipient love affairs and personal turmoil each is navigating. Even the ‘simple’ woman and the ‘tramp’ archetypes were challenged by the end, and if nothing else it made a good case for safe spaces.

Victoria (2015)

This new German film has shown up at festivals and now on general release on a wave of film geekiness around the fact it’s shot in one continuous 138-minute take, which is of course impressive, but doesn’t make it de facto a good film. Other films have gone this route in the past (Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark most notably, which I am embarrassed to say I found boring and inert, though I don’t mean to impugn its filmmaking credentials by any means), and far more films have pretended to (last year’s Birdman, or Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope, most famously). Victoria seems to be the real deal, though, and technically yes it’s very accomplished.

As dawn rises over Berlin, the camera sinuously follows our eponymous protagonist (Laia Costa) from a club to palling around with some lads outside, chiefly the chatty Sonne (Frederick Lau), to getting sucked into a heist — which, as heists tend to do, goes badly wrong. If the method of presentation does anything it shows how easy it is to be pressured into something that turns out very badly for everyone, not to mention keeping an oppressively close focus on Victoria herself and her feelings, largely impassive though Costa’s face remains throughout.

Victoria’s backstory, the emotional crux of the film, is a short scene between herself and Sonne in the cafe where she’s working, about half an hour into the film, when she plays the piano for him. It highlights the struggle she’s had to make her way in life, and the bitter blow that this has dealt to her self-esteem, such that for all its genre trappings the film as a whole seems to really be about just how bleak the situation is for the younger generation (explaining to a certain extent why she’s willing to place herself in what seems to us complacent viewers as danger). For all her training and opportunities, she’s teetering on the edge of the precariat, living away from home (from Spain originally), speaking no German yet working a less-than-minimum-wage job at unsocial hours with no benefits or apparent prospects, certainly not much more than the lads she meets up with. It hardly seems surprising she should grasp at any opportunity, if not to succeed, then just to do something, and that’s an emotional nugget which the film seems to get right.

Still, given the way it’s filmed, Victoria is hardly action-packed, and there are long digressive stretches of quiet observance, for periods of which the sound is replaced by a musical score (perhaps the dialogue was less successful at these moments). Maybe the film shouldn’t work, and yet it largely does, thanks to the single-mindedness of its actors, its director and of course (as has been mentioned many times already) its indefatigable camerman Sturla Brandth Grøvlen.

Victoria (2015)CREDITS
Director Sebastian Schipper; Writers Olivia Neergard-Holm, Schipper and Eike Frederik Schulz; Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen; Starring Laia Costa, Frederick Lau; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 5 April 2016.

Schmutziges Geld (Song, aka Show Life, aka Wasted Love, 1928)

A screening of a silent film, especially one that’s fairly obscure, is always an occasion to rejoice, because it’s (usually) more than just a film screening, but a live experience. Multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne didn’t disappoint either, seamlessly integrating piano, accordion and a few other exotic instruments — hinting at the pseudo-orientalist intrigue — into his score. It’s also wonderful to see the talented Anna May Wong on the big screen, still best known perhaps for her turn in the same year’s Piccadilly, but she is a luminous on-screen presence, and an underrepresented face in the pantheon of cinema. Wong doesn’t disappoint in the title role, as a lowly nightclub dancer in some vague Eastern city (Istanbul was suggested) who finds herself early on being attacked by a group of ruffians and saved by surly Jack (Heinrich George), a man seemingly on the down-and-out. Soon, Song forms an affection for Jack as they go into work together… for it turns out he is a knife-thrower! This is, however, where the film’s great weakness is exposed, for the script is full of this kind of scarcely believable whimsy, as it introduces a long-lost love for Jack in the form of the haughty ballerina Gloria (Mary Kid), her boyfriend, a rich impresario, and a plot line about Jack losing his eyesight after a heist gone wrong — although this does at least lead to some tension when he’s doing his knife act. By the time the impresario has promoted Song to lead dancer at his swanky club (shades of Piccadilly) and is asking her to choose between him and the cruelly-abusive Jack (who still pines for Gloria), the relationship drama has all become a bit ‘whatever’ for this viewer, but at least Anna May’s star still shines bright.

Song film posterCREDITS
Director Richard Eichberg; Writers Helen Gosewish and Adolf Lantz (based on the novel by Karl Vollmöller); Cinematographer Heinrich Gärtner; Starring Anna May Wong, Heinrich George, Mary Kid; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Sunday 15 November 2015.

Lore (2012)

We’ve all seen a hundred films set amongst the European ruins and detritus of World War II, but this film from Australian director Cate Shortland has an interesting angle to it, as it tracks the travails of Hannelore (Saskia Rosendahl), a young woman living out in the Black Forest, who finds herself as head of the family when her apparently fairly senior Nazi parents are taken into custody by the Allies. However, it’s filmed from her point-of-view, so the war itself is a spectral background presence and her parents’ fates are mysterious and elliptically presented. The film settles down to being a sort of fractured road movie, as this new family unit moves across the country towards Hamburg and the home of their grandmother. The abiding quality of these (blonde and blue-eyed) children making their way through the contested space of post-war Germany is akin to that of The Road or other similar apocalyptic visions, as every space seems to be suffused by the constant fear of death, or worse. It’s interesting that despite its Australian genesis, the film is shot in German and acted by German actors, which would usually be the kind of weirdly international co-production that should act as a red flag to potential viewers, and yet it’s all done very well and with plenty of emotional power, as Lore finally comes to get a sense of the new reality from which she and her family had until then been so isolated.

Lore film posterCREDITS
Director Cate Shortland; Writers Robin Mukherjee and Cate (based on the novel The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert); Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw; Starring Saskia Rosendahl; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 24 August 2015.