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.
It may only be half an hour but it puts across everything it needs to, about the scale and terror of some (very recent, contemporary) history, given it was made just 10 years after the end of the war. It deals a bit with the way that sites of abject misery so quickly return to verdant life: I remember visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau and they seemed like such peaceful places, as they do at times in this film, but then there’s the archival footage, and the vastness of it is difficult to comprehend. I’m not really sure this film manages to make it comprehensible because in so many ways it’s not, but it hints at these appalling events and it’s important for people to be reminded.
When the fascists come they’ll offer to let you take back one of those jobs the immigrants have ‘stolen’ but you won’t have to hurt anyone so you’ll probably go along with it. It might even lead to a bit of cross-cultural comedy of misunderstandings but you just want everyone to be fine and for things to be better, and the fascists seem tolerable enough. One of them might even be a family member. But when the fascists start taking names, passing laws, and packing people on transports out of town, by then it’ll be too late and there’s really nothing you can do except get drunk and watch it all go to hell.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Directors Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos; Writers Ladislav Grosman, Kadár and Klos (based on the novel by Grosman); Cinematographer Vladimír Novotný; Starring Jozef Kroner, Ida Kamińska; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 October 2016.
There’s a slightly muckraking angle to the title which might be more suited to a tabloid, but for all its Nazi referencing (which turns out to be a relatively minor part of the tale), this is a story more about the power of the press at its best, hence the mention of Harold Evans, the key figure around whom the documentary is crafted. He’s the former editor of the Sunday Times newspaper — before one R. Murdoch bought it up, the film is keen to note — and a leading proponent of the kind of investigative journalism which is sorely missed these days as a means to hold the powerful to account. The documentary proceeds in a straightforward manner, using talking heads interviews with some of the key players, as well as archival documents and video footage, to set out its tale of, first, the creation and marketing of the drug Thalidomide by the now-defunct Distillers Group and, secondly, its disastrous physical effects on those exposed to it, particularly the children of pregnant women (the latter group targeted by the advertising). Despite clear evidence of these side effects, the drug continued to be promoted for several years, and then when it was withdrawn, the story of its effects was swiftly buried, largely due to the prohibitive effects of the UK’s libel laws. It wasn’t for some decades until Evans and his team started to expose the scandal, after changes in law and some very carefully-worded campaigning that led to questions in Parliament and therefore made the exposé legally more feasible. The film really does give a sense of the labyrinthine bureaucratic complications to simply reporting the facts, and that aspect of it feels like the kind of story that hasn’t moved on hugely in the intervening years; governments and corporations still regularly collude to protect their interests, and a strong free press is still urgently required to uncover these issues.
CREDITS Directors David Morris and Jacqui Morris; Cinematographer Clive Booth; Length 102 minutes. Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Wednesday 3 February 2016.
When the Wikipedia entry namechecks “Nazisploitation” in its write-up, you expect to hate a film (or you expect to love it; to each their own). The Night Porter is certainly troubling — dealing with the sado-masochistic relationship between a former Nazi officer and a young woman he had abused during the war — but it’s clearly meant to be. It also treads a lot more delicately than that inelegant portmanteau word I started with. It’s the late-1950s, and Dirk Bogarde’s Max is working as a porter at a hotel and expecting to be called to trial for his wartime activities any day. There’s a circle of acquaintances and lawyers who are helping him to avoid the worst charges, and there’s a dark sense that maybe this is how it was in the aftermath of World War II for the disgraced Nazi officers. When Charlotte Rampling’s Lucia arrives at his hotel, they make eye contact and immediately you get the sense of some dark past, which is brought out through flashbacks. It’s a nasty film but not one that wallows in the nastiness; its characters are compromised, but perhaps not as much as you feel they should be; and there’s an uneasy way it works towards a resolution — the only resolution perhaps that the film could have, realistically.
This screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival was introduced by the Festival’s director, who, given the screening location and the film’s subject, also briefly addressed and offered condolences for the recent events in Paris. It was followed by a Q&A session involving a number of prominent British film critics (for which I did not stay).
Ever since details of it first emerged, there’s been a powerful cinematic history of representing the Holocaust (or Shoah) on screen. Many of these works can be quite oblique, whether Chantal Akerman’s documentaries that touch on her mother’s experiences, or dramas that evoke the horrors through a structuring absence or by focusing on audience-surrogate characters who come into touch with those affected. Films such as Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955) used archival footage, while Spielberg recreated the ghettoes and camps wholesale in Schindler’s List (1993), yet there’s generally been a sense since Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary Shoah (1985) of the impossibility of providing a visual depiction of the Shoah. Needless to say, much has been passionately written on the subject and I’m very far from an expert, but it must be challenging to any filmmaker intending to broach the subject. That said, it’s not enough to laud Hungarian director László Nemes merely for his attempt — many have tried and failed, however noble their intentions — but for what he achieves in doing so.
Nemes deploys a distinctive visual strategy of focusing his camera in on the face of protagonist Saul (Géza Röhrig) and pushing the atrocities beyond the frame or out of focus in the background. The effect of the camera following Saul’s constant movement is reminiscent of the Dardenne’s Rosetta (1999), albeit if that film had been set in a Nazi concentration camp. Saul is working as part of a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau when he comes across a young man while cleaning out the the gas chambers, who it transpires may be his son; quite whether this is literally true, or an effect of his working conditions, is never answered and in a sense isn’t truly important. However, Saul immediately seeks to try and preserve the boy’s body and find a rabbi to conduct the proper funerary rites. In following this quest, Nemes gives a peripatetic tour of the camp and its environs, providing an overview of the horrific existence that Saul and his fellow inmates experienced and which gives an emotional pull that is so notably repressed in Saul’s expressions — his stony face in response to even the most horrific events undoubtedly deriving from the survival instincts necessary in such an environment.
Given the subject matter and setting, Son of Saul makes for difficult viewing. There’s no particular hope for the salvation of those shown onscreen, though the film does close with a curious form of redemption, which links in with the phantasmic theme of fathers and sons that has built up over the film’s running time. A worthy inclusion on the short list of great films about this most terrifying aspect of 20th century history.
CREDITS Director László Nemes; Writers Nemes and Clara Royer; Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély; Starring Géza Röhrig; Length 107 minutes. Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Saturday 14 November 2015.
After the commercial and critical disappointment of Diana a year or two back, director Oliver Hirschbiegel has returned to the subject that made his name (on Downfall), which is to say, the Nazis. Specifically, this new film focuses on an unlikely resistance fighter, Georg Elser, who tried to assassinate Hitler at the outset of World War II. Obviously, even if one is unfamiliar with the plot, we all know how it’s going to turn out, hence the English title (the amount of time by which his bomb missed its target); the German title instead poses the idea that “he could have changed the world”, to which the unspoken rejoinder is obvious. After the initial excitement of the preparation and outcome of the plot, the bulk of the film lies in flashbacks exploring Elser’s life and influences for the actions he took, in which it becomes clear he acted on his own. Central to Georg’s backstory is a romance with a married woman, Elsa (Katharine Schüttler), whose abusive husband and the way the local village tolerates his evident failings, is symptomatic of a strand of close-mindedness to the threat posed by the Nazis. It is very easy to imagine one as a resistance hero under such circumstances, but the reality of the situation is that I imagine most of us would be like the village’s civic leader, fairly apathetic to the Nazis and happy to do whatever suits him personally. The film makes a great case for Elser’s exceptionalism in such a society, as once again (after the recent Amour Fou), Christian Friedel convinces as a troubled hero in the tragic romantic mould. That said, there’s also plenty of torture involved — those Nazis, they weren’t nice people — so it’s never an easy watch, but it’s a worthwhile historical drama with plenty to recommend it.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Oliver Hirschbiegel | Writers Fred Breinersdorfer and Léonie-Claire Breinersdorder | Cinematographer Judith Kaufmann | Starring Christian Friedel, Katharina Schüttler | Length 116 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 19 July 2015