Tag Archives: German

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 175 – The Blue Angel

The film that introduced Marlene Dietrich to America, Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel tells the tragic story of a man who gives up everything for love. Emil Jannings is delightfully pompous and uptight as Professor Rath, a schoolteacher charmingly disarmed by Dietrich’s seductive cabaret star Lola Lola. The two marry, but unable to change and consumed by jealousy, Rath loses his status, dignity and the woman he loves.

Dietrich is captivating as Lola, wearing a seemingly permanent smirk of knowingness – much of the film’s action takes place backstage, an environment she controls effortlessly, in which the fewer items of clothing she wears the more uncomfortable Rath grows. José notes a moment in which she ungraciously adjusts her underwear, and who cares who’s watching – Mike remarks upon her legs, which at times are posed and filmed to take on a character all of their own. José considers the greatness of Dietrich’s collaborations with von Sternberg, of which this was the first, and in particular the way he composes layered, complex imagery here.

We discuss the film’s characterisation and morality – it’s a tragedy, and to some extent its cabaret world is responsible for Rath’s decline, but because of his inability to understand and adapt to his new life, rather than an inherent immorality to the setting. Lola, too, isn’t simply some succubus; she may find Rath socially useful to marry, given his status as a professor, but moreover her affection for him is apparent. And we consider the film’s two-part structure, how it mirrors itself through its two memorable tracking shots in the classroom, the clown character into whom Rath is transformed, and Rath’s rooster-like crowing on his wedding day taking on a different significance at the film’s climax.

The Blue Angel is ninety years old and remains as tragic and sexy as ever. Don’t miss it if it’s showing near you.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 169 – Transit

Adapted from the 1944 novel of the same name by Anna Seghers, writer-director Christian Petzold’s Transit behaves to some degree like Shakespeare in modern dress. The story follows a German man, Georg (Franz Rogowski), escaping facist-occupied Paris to Marseille, and there encountering other refugees, forging connections and affections with them, making arrangements at consulates for passage and visas to Mexico and the USA, all while rumour and hearsay about the spread of the occupation to the port city hangs over him. But with markers from nearly a century later – present-day vehicles in particular, although much of the clothing lives in an ageless world that bridges the years, and an ethnic component that makes more sense in today’s world than the Forties – Petzold turns a historical narrative into a fable of creeping fascism and the refugee crisis of today. Indeed, the idea that Transit functions like modern-dress Shakespeare might make it sound terribly stilted and artificial, but the real power of Transit‘s transposition to the modern day is just how perfectly it works. Transit‘s world is deeply convincing.

Mike argues that part of the reason that this is the case is the film’s focus on the refugees, and the details of day-to-day life in a city merely threatened by future occupation rather than currently undergoing it. The film’s explicit visual symbols of occupation – stormtroopers lining up citizens against walls, dragging refugees from their families – do stand out, and are both necessary and necessarily rare. That the occupation looms is enough, for the most part – it’s what it makes people do and feel that is the film’s focus, and it doesn’t need to build a Children of Men-style dystopia to explore that. The film is described on the poster, in rather an exciting quote from Indiewire, as “Casablanca as written by Kafka” – a glib line that we partially agree with. The Casablanca connection is clear, at least in basic terms being a complicated World War II love story set in a – for now – safe haven for refugees, the assignment and value of visas and travel documents of constant importance. The Kafka connection is inaccurate, the bureaucratic systems depicted in the Mexican and US consulates being ones that, while overwhelmed by vast numbers of refugees, aren’t designed to confuse or dehumanise. Whatever ails Georg isn’t Kafkaesque.

Georg, as José points out, is something of a cipher. We hear little of his story, know only one or two real details about him of any substance – and even one of those may be a lie – but to the film’s credit it’s not something we ever question. His mental state, reasons for behaving as he does, are always clear, if, as Mike suggests, a little frustrating at one point. Through him, we are able to hear people’s stories, those he encounters in queues and cafés keen to tell him who they are and why they’re there. Being able to tell one’s story and having it heard is a central theme to the film, as well as the ways in which we change or misremember our stories to our benefit – a slightly unreliable narrator occasionally describing things that differ in details from how we’re shown them. Georg may not speak much, may not tell anyone his story during the course of the film, but the narration tells his story in the third person – José having read that some or all of the narration is lifted directly from Seghers’ novel, though having not read the novel, we cannot be entirely certain of how much.

The narration, when it faithfully describes what we see, comes across to Mike as rather needless – showing and telling at the same time to pointless effect. Mentioning one scene in which the narration tells us that a number of refugees feel shame for standing by as a woman is violently separated from her family, he complains that the film should be able to convey this visually. José argues that underlining the point through narration is purposeful, bringing home that we in the present day should feel the same shame for standing by as refugees and immigrants have the same things done to them today. The narration changes a dramatisation into a call to action, and in so doing the film constantly asks us pointed ethical and moral questions of ourselves.

In short, Transit is a considerable film and unquestionably worth your time. We can’t recommend it highly enough.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 136 – Die Welle

n response to José’s excursion into the world of Michael Curtiz a few months ago, Mike has picked four films of his own to discuss, the first being writer-director Dennis Gansel’s 2008 high school drama Die Welle (The Wave). Based on the true story of a 1967 social experiment, Die Welle follows one week in a high school in which, as an exercise intended to teach his pupils about the methods and dangers of fascism, a teacher creates a fascist movement, named The Wave, that rapidly spirals out of control.

Die Welle is first and foremost remarkable for convincingly depicting the seductive aspects of fascist movements, such as the shared symbols that engender group unity and, indeed, simply the positivity of being a member of a like-minded group. Mike compares it to Starship Troopers, claiming that it doesn’t just argue its case but actually makes it work on its audience – rather than seeing why The Wave is appealing to the kids, you feel it too. José discusses what sets it apart from your typical high school movie and how an even greater focus on the kids, rather than the teacher, might have strengthened it.

The classroom scenes allow the film to develop its arguments about fascism through ersatz Socratic dialogues, the teacher’s seminar-style classes allowing pupils to make competing points in quick succession, clashing with each other as they do so. But Mike points out that perhaps all is not what it seems: one student, for instance, goes unchallenged when she claims that high unemployment and social injustice are social conditions that favour dictatorship, but the world in which these children live bears few markers of such sociopolitical problems, yet they enthusiastically join and build their movement. Indeed, one motivation behind the experiment is the students’ belief that Germany, having already experienced a fascist dictatorship, is immune from another. Perhaps, the film suggests, we aren’t quite as clever and protected as we’d like to congratulate ourselves on being.

Aside from the film’s central thesis, there are minor details in its world that pique our interest, José noticing the students’ access to and expertise in the use of image editing and web design software; Mike picking up on the educated, liberated attitude to sex the characters display (it’s hard to imagine an American high school movie treating sex with similar freedom and confidence). We remark upon how believable the characters are (with perhaps one exception) in their interactions and responses to the nascent movement.

Neither of us can claim that it’s a perfect film – there’s little in it that is visually expressive, and its mechanisms are too openly displayed, with some characters too clearly intended to represent ideas and serve plot functions. But Die Welle is an enormously engaging, intelligent, and rather bold exploration of the mechanisms and appeal of fascism that enthusiastically uses cinematic affect to convey its message that we may all be more susceptible to its dangers than we think.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

hans fallada

 

 

Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin cropped up in one of Gregory Woods‘s threads and it’s enthralled me for the last three nights. Otto and Anna Quangle – an elderly working class couple – are driven by grief and conscience to small acts of rebellion. Each Sunday, they write out a postcard and put it in a public space where someone will pick it up. That act, small and impotent as it is, is treason, and punishable by death, which is where the whole novel inexorably leads to. I love the milieu. it’s so rare to see working class people, neighbourhoods and ways of life depicted in novels still. But here the working class rub shoulders with the underworld, farmers, the criminal justice system. The careless cruelty, the greed, the pompous injustice of it all, the quotidian nastiness: all depicted from the inside. The period is from the Fall of Paris to the Fall of Berlin and the author wrote it in a burst of 24 days just before he died in ’47. The corruption of the system, the acceptance of different degrees of hideousness everywhere, the dehumanisation of those showing any kind of difference or dissidence…and in the meantime Otto and Anna put out their postcards, assert a humanity with small acts. There are lots of people alone in this Berlin engaging in small, almost invisible acts of dissidence they only hear about when the land in jail. It’s a great novel because it depicts a whole world peopled by varied and vivid characters but it’s the narrative unfolding that rivets. It reads like a great detective novel even though one knows exactly where everything will end up. one is riveted by character and process, indeed the process is in itself a kind of hope, even as you know that Anna and Otto’s actions doom not only them but also many who they merely happened to be in contact with. No Hollywood movie depicted Nazis with the kind of ordinary, everyday, casual and almost funny brutality that we read of in this book.

José Arroyo

 

Tough Love/ Härte (Rosa Von Praunheim, Germany, 2015)

tough love

The film tells the story of Andreas Marquadt, a handsome karate champ, violent gangster and ex-con. Marquadt’s father tried to kill him as a toddler, his mother sexually abused him from pre-pubescence to the time he left home. Von Praunheim too easily ‘explains’ Marquadt’s career as a brutal, manipulative pimp in the light of this past. Certainly Marquadt himself, now married to the one girl he exploited who still stuck by him in jail, finds an excuse for his subsequent brutality to others in his childhood experiences. These, however, are the worst aspects of the film.

The reason to see Tough Love is the dexterity with which Von Praunheim tells this story, easily moving from a post-rehab present shot as documentary in colour to a black-and-white re-enactment, compellingly dramatised by Von Praunheim. The sex scenes are clinical, distanced, objective. Sex here is always about something else, usually power, domination, the with-holding of love. Von Praunheim’s great achievement is firstly to get such superb performances from Hanno Koffler as the young Marquadt; Louise Hayer, who looks like Romy Schneider and is very charismatic as Marion Erdmann, the 16 year-old who falls for and is victimised by Marquadt but who ends up staying by him; and Katy Karrenbauer as the loving, abusive and manipulative mom. Von Praunheim and his cast, working with sketchy, fake, indicative, sets, make the people and the past live and breathe; they reveal; with humour, understanding and compassion; where the documentary footage of Marquandt explains, excuses, hides, reveals only in refracted form and only what he wants to present himself as. The real Erdmann, masochistic, romantic, charismatic; a living embodiment of German Romanticism made flesh now, is very enthralling.

Von Praunheim makes films that always seem a slight mish-mash, they’re never perfect, and yet they’re often more compassionate, empathetic, understanding and memorable; more accepting of people’s many failings, and more willing to explore them deeper and in more original forms than many other, more celebrated filmmakers. I was delighted to see Tough Love, recommend it, and am grateful to the Festival des films du monde in Montreal to have created a context in which I could re-encounter the work of such a fascinating filmmakers after so many years. There should be more Von Praunheim shown in Britain. In fact a career retrospective is long overdue.

Fictional and documentary Marquadts
Fictional and documentary Marquadts

Seen at the Festival des films du monde, September 2015

José Arroyo