Ein flüchtiger Zug nach dem Orient (A Fleeting Passage to the Orient, 1999)

Following on from my post about Ulrike Ottinger’s Chamisso’s Shadow earlier today, another filmmaker crafting a similar meeting between history and travel is Ruth Beckermann, whose work I discuss today takes the form of a travelogue but again uses historical texts and incidents to structure it, finding a little bit of the past in present actions perhaps, and revealing something of the world as it’s not perhaps frequently seen by the West.


An essay film with shades of Chantal Akerman I thought, in the way it elegantly constructs its telling of the story of the peripatetic later life travels of Empress Elisabeth of Austria in the 19th century with its own travelogue visions of Egypt. There are lateral tracking shots of markets and bridges across the Nile, among many other sights and sounds of the country, pulled together by a studied narration (available in both German and English). It seems like something that must be very deeply considered, and I confess that I watched it in probably less than the careful scrutiny it deserves, but I very much warmed to the sense of feeling it imparts (presumably somewhat like the Empress would herself have encountered) of peering somehow through the exoticised Othering of Egypt and its people that exists in the West, of getting a glimpse of life in this bustling world city, albeit with a certain distance.

A Fleeting Passage to the Orient film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ruth Beckermann; Cinematographers Nurith Aviv נורית אביב and Sophie Cadet; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 30 January 2020.

Chamissos Schatten (Chamisso’s Shadow, 2016)

Ulrike Ottinger is a filmmaker who came out of the 1970’s New German Cinema, making distinctive and odd films like Madame X and Ticket of No Return, before moving on to film a number of works in Mongolia and the furthest east, where she has shown a huge amount of interest in ethnography. This film fits in with that, and while it is in a sense a travelogue, it’s also very much a film about the way that history is latent in the present cultures of the Bering Sea, and the continuum of practices since the 18th century (when some of the texts she reads over these images are taken from). History, then, is indivisible from present-day life, and undoubtedly will continue to be for many generations.


An epic ethnographic documentary in four parts, this covers the cultures and people living around the Bering Sea, both on the Alaskan and Russian sides. As you might expect from the running length it does so in some detail, and as suggested by the title, it also links in historical perspectives. Specifically these come in the form of texts written by naturalist Georg Steller (who accompanied Bering on his exploits), then a century later by Adelbert von Chamisso, a poet and botanist, as well as a little bit from James Cook. However, it’s director Ulrike Ottinger’s voice and cinematic style which dominates the film, though in a respectful way, observing and allowing the people of the region to move about their lives and tell stories when they feel compelled.

It’s difficult to sum it all up in a short review, but the sense I got was of a continuity between Steller in the 18th century and the modern scenes, as a lot of the same practices and customs take place that he described, even if political changes have meant movements of the populations and the closure of the borders between the two nations (which come closest at the top of the world, between the Big and Little Diomede Islands, between which also runs the International Date Line). A lot of the shots of the expanse of this wilderness are breathtaking, but it’s in the simple details too that the film shines, in just pointing the camera at the people, and if some of the sequences seem too long for comfort (some hunters skinning and cutting up a seal), others you feel could go on for an entire chapter (the indigenous people demonstrating their dances was a particular highlight).

Chamisso's Shadow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Ulrike Ottinger (based on texts by Adelbert von Chamisso and Georg Steller); Length 720 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 May 2020.

Two Films about the Personal Legacy of Revolutionary Activity: What Walaa Wants (2018) and Born in Evin (2019)

The topic of resistance includes not only stories about revolutionaries but the stories of their legacy and influence, particularly on their children. These two films are about two such children, who may have grown up either surrounded by conflict and in the often painful absence of their parents (as in the Palestinian story of What Walaa Wants) or, at the other extreme, in complete ignorance of their parents and revolutionary activities, having begun a new life in exile away from those traumas (as with the Iranian daughter of revolutionaries living in Germany, in Born in Evin). Neither film can be entirely satisfactory, because it feels like two people grappling with uncertainty about how to exist in the world, given these backgrounds, but both are illuminating about the generational nature of resistance and trauma.

Continue reading “Two Films about the Personal Legacy of Revolutionary Activity: What Walaa Wants (2018) and Born in Evin (2019)”

A Hidden Life (2019)

A discussion that has cropped up once again in political and media circles has been around “antifa”, and every time it happens a lot of people with the same wearied tone have to explain it’s not an organisation, it’s an ethos, a motivating ideal, a praxis and a shared struggle: it is just short for “anti-fascist”. Such struggles can take an explosive, active form, and there are no shortage of World War II movies to illustrate that (though most are Hollywood stories of heroism against the odds). Terrence Malick’s most recent film instead deals with the internal contortions, of morality and faith competing with self-preservation, and the way that just these simple acts of resistance can carry their own dangers. The only thing that “antifa”, such as it is, calls us to do is to resist fascism. All that I can hope is that to continue to do so is something which does not lead to the outcome in today’s film, but as some of the world’s largest countries have taken an active turn towards demagoguery and fascism, that is starting to seem rather more perilous.


I haven’t really connected with many of Malick’s films since The Thin Red Line (and certainly not the last few), as he’s progressively loosened his narrative focus in preference for impressionistic movements. However, with A Hidden Life, he seems to have reined this extravagance in a bit (though the stylistic tics are still very much evident), not to mention choosing a setting and theme that seems more fitting to his particular style. Of course, there’s still plenty of voiceover, used more as another layer of sound than to convey any specific information, and he takes the interesting decision to have the film in English except where perhaps the words are less important — background chatter, bureaucratic invective, in which case it’s in German.

It’s an odd film, though, that bathes this story — of Franz (August Diehl), an Austrian peasant in the early-1940s, who grimly resolves (with an at times wavering, but nevertheless increasingly bitterly held, sense of moral clarity) to defy military tribunals and not speak the ‘Hitler oath’ — in a certain sort of beatific calm, which makes sense given he was after all beatified not so long ago. There’s little sense of the actual war, and perhaps in 1940-1943 (when the film is set), it hasn’t particularly reached the alpine Austrian setting of St Radegund or even the Berlin prison he’s shipped off to later. There’s one chilling scene where the village’s mayor inveighs against the dangers of immigrants and foreigners, despite clearly having none in his midst, which obviously remains current, but otherwise this is very much focused on Franz and (almost equally) his wife Franziska, grounding their story in the community and (as you might expect from a Malick film) the glory of the natural world. It’s not even quite as overtly spiritual as some of his more recent films have been, though given Franz’s Catholic faith and his later beatification, it is obviously imbued with that throughout.

I liked it, and didn’t even feel the running time once the movie started to hold me. It’s shot with some oddly distorting lenses, and the camera operators must all have been children given how close to the ground the camera seems to be most of the time, but Malick’s impressionist excesses aren’t so much on show or are perhaps less jarring when not juxtaposed against Hollywood or indie music backgrounds.

A Hidden Life film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Jörg Widmer; Starring August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Jürgen Prochnow, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz; Length 174 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Friday 17 January 2020.

Criterion Sunday 303: Bad Timing (1980)

This is a tough film but I think it makes most sense in the context of the kinds of films being made at this period (which Russell herself touches on in an extra on the Criterion disc), films in which pretty young women act flirty and have sex with the (older) leading man, thus softening his hardened masculine persona. Except unlike those films, Bad Timing makes this relationship central to its plot and it doesn’t leave it there, but goes much further. This older man here is not just any man but an esteemed psychoanalyst Dr Alex Linden (living and teaching in Vienna, of course), and his obsession for Theresa Russell’s flirtatious and ‘easy’ younger woman Milena becomes something that ultimately contributes to her psychological disintegration. He projects onto her his own needs, takes out his jealousy and is overtly positioned by Roeg’s film as in fact not just a creepy sexual predator but also (and this may perhaps count as a spoiler, but it’s important to know in terms of the kind of psychosexual terrain that’s being covered in the film) a rapist. The film makes clear, through Russell’s fantastic performance, just how social constrained her agency is, a societal expectation as created explicitly by men like Art Garfunkel’s doctor, and which he preys on increasingly methodically. As such, it’s all rather psychologically (and at times, physically) brutal — their initial sexual encounter in flashback is cross-cut with a bloody, invasive surgical procedure on her unconscious naked body, following what appears to be a suicide attempt — so despite Roeg’s typically textural use of editing back and forth in time, little snippets of one time period fragmenting into another, it is a difficult watch. However, I do believe it’s trying to unpick the layers of obsession that can run through relationships (especially in films), pointing its finger firmly at 20th century psychoanalysis as being part of the problem.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Nic Roeg and his producer Jeremy Thomas sit in one of their kitchens and talk about the film some 25 years later, recollecting some of what went into creating it, how Roeg found Russell as his actor, and a little bit about the reception by the studio.
  • There are about 17 minutes of deleted scenes, half of which have no sound (as it wasn’t preserved) but they give little extra scenes to flesh out some of the characters.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nicolas Roeg; Writer Yale Udoff; Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond; Starring Theresa Russell, Art Garfunkel, Harvey Keitel, Denholm Elliott; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 22 March 2020.

3 Tage in Quiberon (3 Days in Quiberon, 2018)

Biopics are often about famous men (and made by men too), but increasingly women’s stories have been brought to the screen, whether in big budget biopic dramas like Hidden Figures or in little indie chamber pieces like this one, which is about a film star towards the end of her career.


This is on the whole a pretty solid chamber drama (more-or-less) set at an upscale resort hotel in France in c1980, as Romy Schneider (Marie Bäumer) is rather unsuccessfully in detox, while a German journalist and photographer (Charly Hübner) comes to interview her, and her friend Hilde (Birgit Minichmayr) stops by to offer emotional support. Shot in crisp black-and-white, the performances are all very good, even if it does run a little long — there’s a lot of the interview in there, and we get a sense of the fragile state of Schneider’s psyche as she breaks down over the course of the drama. Hilde’s character is the least ostentatious, but Minichmayr has worked with Jessica Hausner and Maren Ade, so she knows how to hold the camera’s attention for even a repressed, very interior person. You can tell it’s set in the early-1980s because everyone smokes constantly, everywhere, in restaurants, bars, hotel rooms… just always lighting up. It’s not always obvious why this was made, but as a portrait of depression, and the bleak insularity of stardom, it feels compelling at times. Also, the (all too brief) Denis Lavant appearance is most welcome.

3 Days in Quiberon film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Emily Atef; Cinematographer Thomas W. Kiennast; Starring Marie Bäumer, Birgit Minichmayr, Charly Hübner; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 19 November 2018.

Welcome to Sodom (2018)

My week themed around African cinema has focused on films by African filmmakers dealing with their own history, political issues and lives, whether in Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Mali, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Chad or Mauritania (and, in my previous themed week of Arab-language cinema, in Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia as well). However, when looking at cinema about Africa it’s impossible to avoid Western voices. Even in many of the films that I’ve looked at, most notably La Femme au couteau (1969), the coloniser is an unseen but powerfully abusive presence throughout. Therefore, it’s worth pointing out that this documentary about Ghana is by two Austrian filmmakers, and while the subject may be on an environmental catastrophe largely wrought by Western demand for consumer electronics, it also perhaps betrays a certain way of looking at Africa, which you can also sometimes perceive in films by auteurs like Claire Denis, who frequently deals with Black and African bodies, given her upbringing in colonial Africa, or Bertrand Tavernier in Coup de torchon (1981).


This documentary is filmed in Agbogbloshie, an area of Ghana’s capital Accra where electronic waste is dumped and recycled by an itinerant community which has sprung up around this former swamp land. There are some rather thin statistics that start and end the film (translated indifferently into English), which hint at Western complicity in this very literally dirty business, but most of what we see is just the tangible sense of this lived reality. The sense I get of what the filmmakers are trying to do is the kind of epic cinema of fallen humanity as in, say, Herzog’s Lektionen in Finsternis (Lessons of Darkness, 1992), for this film really privileges the visuals over any kind of contextualising or historical research. And like Herzog’s film, this Austrian film could also be critiqued for its white European gaze on a treacherous African hellscape, but when dealing with Africa on film the European gaze becomes inevitable to deal with at times.

That the area, nicknamed “Sodom” by its inhabitants, is polluted is evident in every frame, and the many fires which are set to strip valuable copper wiring of their plastic must account for much of the health risks. We also hear from a number of people (I’m not clear if they are the voices of the people themselves, or of actors, as they are overlaid on the soundtrack), but the stories are more than just your standard ones of people living in poverty: these are people who have chosen for various reasons to come here, and who despite the horrific reality of life have found value in living and working there. We hear from a gay Jewish man who has fled his native Liberia and is living on the margins to escape persecution, from a boy who resists the identity he was assigned as birth, and prefers the manual labour of the men in the camp. We see plenty of the women too, many of whom are engaged in cooking for the camp, or transporting packs of water in chilled buckets on their heads, which are used by the men tending the fires to keep themselves and their wires cool.

It’s a very tactile film that goes big on the senses — and there’s some rather catchy hip hop music being produced by inhabitants of the area too, which breaks up the action a little — but don’t expect to learn too much about why this area exists or what’s being done to mitigate its evident environmental dangers. This is a cautionary tale intended to make us think about our own use of consumer electronics and where they ultimately end up.

Film posterCREDITS
Directors Christian Krönes and Florian Weigensamer; Writers Roland Schrotthofer and Weigensamer; Cinematographer Christian Kermer; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha Dochouse), London, Sunday 17 March 2019.

Two Films by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: Daratt (2006) and A Screaming Man (2010)

Recently, I reviewed the French-set Une saison en France (A Season in France, 2017) directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, but his earlier works were made in his native country of Chad, which he left in the early-1980s. As becomes clear in these films, his is a country torn apart by Civil War — more or less constant, but flaring up regularly, since the country’s independence in 1960 — and a result of colonial-era divisions between Arab Muslims in the north, and Christians in the south.

Continue reading “Two Films by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: Daratt (2006) and A Screaming Man (2010)”

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.

Criterion Sunday 64: The Third Man (1949)

There’s a certain kind of ‘cinema of quality’ prestige big budget production, especially from the UK, that I am somewhat allergic towards, and for many years I’d lumped The Third Man in with that. However, rewatching it again recently I realise the problem is with me when it comes to this film, because it’s not only glorious — and it truly is spectacular, even if just for the depth of its shadows and the luminosity of the light in those sewer sequences, though it’s sustained throughout by canted framings and canny compositions — but it’s also rather less triumphalist and morally clear-cut than you might expect from its American-in-Europe plotline. The film’s world is one of moral grey areas, a position staked out by the Harry Lime character (Orson Welles, in what amounts to a brief but memorable cameo), and constantly questioned by its pulp novelist protagonist Holly (Joseph Cotten). He has come from the US to Vienna just after the end of World War II looking for a job with his friend Harry, only to find himself at Harry’s funeral wondering what happened. No one has a clear story, and the details seem to be being hidden by the various forces — the city is split between four occupying armies, with their own respective languages — as well as various shadowy characters who interact with them at an official or semi-official level. It’s a film about profiteering, which makes clear the moral equivalency between wartime acts and those same acts outside wartime. It also features some excellent performances by Cotten as well as Alida Valli as Lime’s girlfriend Anna, but primarily it’s a triumph of writing and direction, whatever snobby canards towards Carol Reed’s “non-auteur” status the critics might throw.

Criterion Extras: A packed reissue includes an introduction by Peter Bogdanovich, retailing the Reed-as-non-auteur line pretty hard.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carol Reed; Writer Graham Greene; Cinematographer Robert Krasker; Starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli [as “Valli”], Trevor Howard, Orson Welles; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Saturday 2 May 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 29 November 2015).