Criterion Sunday 569: Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday, 1930)

A lovely silent film, somewhat akin to a city symphony documentary but with elements of narrative drama, it opens expressively with shots of Berlin (the hustle and bustle of the city, people at work on a Friday) along with vignettes depicting various peoples’ lives, such that it’s not immediately clear when the written portions of the film start (though Billy Wilder is given writing credit up front). Still, once our (anti?)-hero Wolfgang is seen chatting up a young woman called Christl, it becomes clear this isn’t quite a documentary. At length a plot develops whereby Wolfgang and his friend Erwin head to the Wannsee lake and Wolfgang soon gets flirtatious with Christl’s friend Brigitte, much to the former’s annoyance. Throughout the film remains focused on its milieu, frequently showing us the faces of those around our central characters, giving expression to both a time and a place in history. The film thus provides a vivid sense of (middle-class and working) life prior to the Nazis in Germany, a sort of carefree modern life that can’t help but be imbued with poignancy given what we know.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer; Writers Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak and Curt Siodmak; Cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan; Starring Wolfgang von Waltershausen, Brigitte Borchert; Length 73 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 11 September 2022.

Criterion Sunday 502: Revanche (2008)

I was impressed by this film so it’s no surprise to read — on doing a little research — that Austrian director Götz Spielmann had been working for some time before he made this (although surprisingly hasn’t really made a big splash since then). He shows a fair bit of control over his subject and the performances, with a steely gaze to his camera that adds an edge to the moral drama playing out on screen, between a (fairly low-level) criminal and a police officer who has, shall we say, caused quite a lot of pain in his life and to whom he finds himself unexpectedly living next door. That particular setup seems a bit far-fetched, as does a relationship with the police officer’s wife, but yet somehow it all seems to make sense in the universe that this thriller plays out in. It’s a world of small towns, close-knit communities, and which even allows for a modicum of hope amongst all the bleakness. It’s a shame that it boils down to essentially a film about two men confronting one another over the women in their lives, but the way it’s handled is excellent.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Götz Spielmann; Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht; Starring Johannes Krisch, Ursula Strauss, Andreas Lust, Irina Potapenko Ирина Потапенко; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 30 January 2022.

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 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].

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).

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.