Category: Germany


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In the age of torture porn, extreme gore, and fresh off the assembly line horror, it’s easy to become desensitized to the violence and brutality of horror movies. With the exception of the best modern horror (The Descent, Let the Right One In, American Psycho), audiences come in expecting personality-free, nubile youth to be murdered in increasingly “clever” and fresh ways to sate some primal blood lust. And while I love the original Scream as much as any body who grew up in the 90s, there’s something ethically repugnant about taking pleasure in the suffering of others, even if said others are obnoxious, fictional constructs. Austrian director Michael Haneke (Amour) shares those misgivings, and his 1997 psychological anti-horror masterpiece, Funny Games, is a scathing middle finger at anyone who thinks abuse can pass for entertainment.

With all of the dangers of Poe’s Law in full effect, Funny Games is satire played brutally, viscerally straight. When it made its premiere at Cannes, many critics mistook Haneke’s intentions and thought Funny Games was a vile, reprehensible extension of the increasingly raw horror films of the 90s. And it was all those things, but that was intentional. Funny Games is nothing short of Michael Haneke’s attempts to play the soul-crushing terror, violence, and cruelty of modern horror without any of the titillating entertainment/escapism/power fantasy that often seeps into the genre. And while the film may be unwatchable to many, that was what Haneke wanted and I suspect the way I watch horror from now on will be colored by my experience with this film.

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Anna (Susanna Lothar) and Georg (Ulrich Mühe) are two upper-class Austrian vacationers on holiday with their son, Georg II (Stefan Clapczynski), at their large summer home. Before their world is turned upside down, Anna and Georg’s life is one of luxury and ease, and they entertain themselves by challenging the other to name increasingly obscure classical compositions. But as soon as they arrive at the lake where their summer home resides, things seem subtly off, and their usually friendly neighbors are oddly distant. But the real horror doesn’t arrive until Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering) show up on their doorstep.

Pretending to be friends of their neighbors (who they’ve already killed), Paul and Peter are grade-A psychopaths quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen in the cinema before. Although they attempt to appear to be nothing more than slightly rude  youths at first, it doesn’t take long for Paul and Peter to reveal their true colors by murdering the family dog and breaking Georg’s leg with a golf club. And from there on, Paul and Peter submit the family to a series of increasingly cruel mind games, centered around a bet that the family won’t leave til 9 AM the next day. And, needless to say, the deck is stacked against Anna and Georg.

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Funny Games utilizes a modernist disrespect for the fourth wall to help hammer in its points. On several different occasions, Paul turns directly towards the camera and addresses the viewer. He talks to the viewer like they’re a typical horror fan and they’re there to relish in the carnage that’s about to occur (which mostly happens off-screen which enhances the horror because you can’t even get off on the gorn of it all). If Paul’s little asides don’t make you feel like a prick, you’ll never understand what makes this film special. And when the movie has one moment where it seems maybe things may go the heroes’ way, well… let’s just say that Haneke isn’t afraid to remind viewers that this is a movie that he has control over.

And that leads into the most important part of Funny Games and what makes it such a powerful and important film. Funny Games is horror without any of the catharsis that comes with horror as entertainment. In most horror, the majority of the cast will die, but at least one person will live. That figure becomes the audience surrogate. For fear of spoiling the film, you don’t get that release in Funny Games. Some films (even the best like American Psycho) will turn the supreme violence into comedy. There are occasional moments of pitch-black comedy in Funny Games, but it is mostly “hands over your mouth” brutality. Some horror films allow you to get off on the violence by making the ones being killed insufferable pricks. Anna and her family may be minimally characterized, but you’re given no reason to dislike them. And you feel every stab of dread and pain that shoots into their lives.

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Funny Games should have been the last word on home invasion horror films. But the litany of Scream sequels, The Strangers, and the two The Purge films show that Hollywood has failed to grasp this film’s message (that said, I actually think The Strangers is a surprisingly scary horror film). Haneke himself seems to have forgotten the point he made with the original Funny Games considering he would do a shot-for-shot remake 10 years later with American actors. If you make a film that is a harrowing condemnation of the kind of person who would watch this movie in the first place, why would you remake it and invite those who sat through the first one to see that same horrifying tale again? It comes off as vaguely hypocritical.

Funny Games isn’t easy to sit through. It’s as intentionally transgressive and challenging a film as I’ve watched for this blog, and it would have fit right in with the films of the French New Extremity of the early 2000s if they’d been half as philosophically challenging as Haneke’s masterwork. I feel comfortable calling Funny Games the best straight horror film I’ve ever seen (particularly if one counts American Psycho as more cultural satire than horror). But many of you will sit down and be either utterly disgusted by it (which you should) but not understand why, or you’ll find it to be an utter bore. For those that can appreciate the subtext and criticism Haneke lays out, you’re in for one of the most powerfully disturbing films of the 1990s.

Final Score: A+

 

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I’ve long thought about trying my hand at writing a war movie. Other than the clear obstacle that I have absolutely no military experience whatsoever, I’ve alays been plagued by my desire to not write your typical, American military film. If I ever wrote a war movie, I wouldn’t want to write about the winning side, or, in the fashion of Saving Private Ryan, at least not one who achieved anything more than a Pyrrhic victory. War films about glorious victors are too self-congratulatory and celebratory. The notion of “We won; you lost,” permeates every scene and they generally fail to capture the hellish realities of war. And, perhaps, that’s why my two favorite World War II films come from the perspective of the soon-to-be damned.

Up until last night, I would have said 1981’s Das Boot was the best World War II movie ever made. Wolfgang Petersen’s classic examination of life on a German U-Boat at the end of World War II captures the reality of “War Is Hell” better than any film ever made, except perhaps Grave of the Fireflies. And it achieved that through avoid any glorification of war whatsoever. These men’s lives were miserable and full of death, and even when they made it back to Germany, death awaited them. It was one man’s deconstruction of a glorious myth of his own people’s past, and it remains one of the finest war films ever made. 2004’s Downfall takes an even more stark and controversial route than Das Boot by daring to humanize the final days of the Third Reich.

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It is, in Germany, illegal to display most symbols of the Nazi party. Nationalist and hard-right political parties are illegal, and performing the Nazi salute is a prosecutable offense. German’s are sick, to this day, to their very soul by the horrors they committed in World War II, and what makes Downfall work so well is that, like The White Ribbon, it is both a cinematic excoriation of the darker side of German culture as well as an honest humanization of the men and women who oversaw some of the worst atrocities in human history. That the film dares offer a realistic and honest portrait of Adolf Hitler alone would have qualified it as mandatory World War II viewing, but the film is much more ambitious and far-sighted than that.

Based heavily on the testimony of Hitler’s personal secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), Downfall is a painstakingly realized portrayal of the final week of the men in the Third Reich’s bunker in Berlin as Russian forces slowly but surely capture the city. Hitler (Wings of Desire‘s Bruno Ganz) lives in a schizophrenic state of absolute refusal to accept that his dreams shall not come to pass against sudden bouts of realistic acceptance and plans for his own imminent suicide with his mistress Eva Braun (Nowhere in Africa‘s Juliane Kohler). As  Hitler’s stability dwindles, his top generals and brass, including Albert Speer, Heinrich Himler, and Josef Goebbels, are left fighting amongst themselves on whether to obey’s the Fuhrer’s orders and refuse surrender or to ignore Hitler and save their people from total destruction.

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And as life in the bunker devolves into a daily race to see who Hitler accuses of being a traitor next (if for no other reason than not being able to follow his impossible demands), life above the bunker in the streets of Berlin is even worse. Goebbels has commanded battalions of children to serve as cannon fodder to slow the advance of the Red Army. Heinrich Himmler has removed all of the SS and most top government officials from the city leaving the remaining civilians to die of starvation and sickness. And what few doctors remain in the city are stretched threadbare amongst the surviving resistance. And, without fail, the Russians continue their march into the city itself.

Bruno Ganz’s performance as Adolf Hitler is one of the most remarkable and stunningly courageous performances in the history of the silver screen. Hitler is not the type of role any German actor would naturally gravitate towards, but Ganz brings him to life in a wrenchingly honest way. In a performance that can only be described as the exact opposite of his kind and sensitive angel Damiel in Wings of Desire, Ganz’s Hitler is by turns despotic, brutal, cruel, and unyielding. Yet, minutes later, he can be caring, gentle with women and children, despairing, and frightened. If any historical figure from the 1900s lends itself to over-the-top caricature, it’s Hitler, but even in his most explosive angry moments, Bruno Ganz keeps his characterization frighteningly realistic.

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And Ganz is supported by an exceptional pool of talented German actors and actresses. Anyone who’s seen Nowhere in Africa knows how talented Juliane Kohler is, and her Eva Braun is exceptionally different from her suffering Jewish wife/mother. She’s a manic creature who wants to manufacture a joie de vivre in the bunker even when she knows she will die soon. Alexandra Maria Lara brings the secretary to life, and you sympathize with her suffering even though you know she works directly for one of the most evil men in human history. Other stellar supporting performances include Corinna Harfouch as Goebbel’s zealously loyal wife, Christian Berkel as a nazi doctor, and Ulrich Matthes as Goebbels himself.

When the movie was released in 2004, it was fairly controversial for its dogged refusal to not simply make its protagonist monstrous caricatures. Yes, we see how truly monstrous these men and women can be. Hitler asserts repeatedly that the German people don’t deserve to live after the war because they have failed him. Goebbel’s wife, Magda, poisons her children in their sleep rather than let them live in a world without National Socialism. Many of Hitler’s men scheme to depose him now that the war is clearly lost. But, at the same time, the movie touches on the small moments of humanity these comrades share before their downfall. Eva Braun gives Traudl her best fur coat. Hitler walks his dog and congratulates his best soldiers. Goebbels leads his children in German songs to entertain the soldiers and the Fuhrer.

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The film never stops finding little moments like that. Though there is plenty of conventional warfare going on above the bunker (which is displayed in graphic detail), the movie’s most effective moments are in the character-building and day-to-day life at the end of a wannabe empire. This movie’s deliberate pacing may scare away more action-oriented war movie lovers, but for those who understand that the key to a successful war film (or any film to be honest) is character driven storytelling (so we’re invested in the outcome on screen), Downfall‘s dedication to character is a breath of fresh air.

At 110o words, I’m going to draw this review to a close because I promised my sister I would watch the Billy Wilder/Humphrey Bogart/Audrey Hepburn classic Sabrina with her later. Also, I’m very, very hungry. It’s 4:30 and I haven’t eaten anything today (although to be fair, I didn’t wake up until 2:30 PM). If you’re looking for a World War II movie that breaks the mold, look no further than Downfall. After some contemplation, it replaces Das Boot as what I consider to be the best World War II film ever made, and it’s deserving of a wider audience than it’s had over the years.

Final Score: A

 

Just last week, I watched the achingly beautiful and meditative Wings of Desire, a 1987 German film by director Wim Wenders for which he won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival. As the story of an immortal angel who turns down his eternity old mission to silently observe and record the human experience to be a mortal and know what it means to be a man and love, it was an artistically ambitious and visually striking ode to the beauty and transitory nature of life. As soon as I discovered that Wenders released a sequel six years later, I immediately put it on my Netflix queue and moved it to the very top because of how much I loved the original film. That’s why I’m sad to report that while 1993’s Faraway, So Close! is a gorgeous and uplifting film in its own right, it comes nowhere close to capturing the spiritual magic of Wings of Desire. By embracing a more conventional and accessible plot structure, Wenders loses the postmodernist magic of his original film and instead tells a story that is perhaps a little too simplistic and earnest in its idealism.

It’s been six years since Damiel (Bruno Ganz), the protagonist of Wings of Desire, gave up his status as an angel to be a man and to be with the lovely trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin). They have a young daughter and Marion has found professional success with a circus troupe while Damiel has fully integrated into human life running his own pizza shop. His closest “friend” as an angel, Cassiel (Otto Sander),  has spent the intervening years upholding his post as a recorder of human life and to bring people small comfort in their most distressing moments. He’s even found a replacement for his personal counsel in the female angel Raphaela (Tess‘s Nastassja Kinski). Cassiel finds himself longing for the same kind of human existence that Damiel has and bemoans his inability to reach out and make a true impact in the lives of the people he silently observes every day. When one of the girls that he watches nearly falls to hear death, Cassiel sacrifices his angelhood to save her life though his transition into this mortal coil is far less simple and pleasant than Damiel when a mysterious supernatural agent (Willem Dafoe) does his best to shape the course of Cassiel’s new life, and not for the better.

The most remarkable part of the film was Otto Sander’s performance as Cassiel (and later, his human persona of Karl Engel). Well, the best part is still the black-and-white photography but a considerably larger portion of this film was shot in color than in Wings of Desire so it didn’t have the same total effect this time around. Cassiel’s character arc is about as tragic as you can imagine, and Otto Sanders really sells Cassiel’s transformation from an innocent and naive newborn essentially to a more hardened and cynical person in a pretty heartbreaking way. There are plenty of scenes which find Cassiel raging against the forces of fate that landed him in this situation and why he can’t do the same good as other men, and Sander was fare more effective in this film than he was Wings of Desire (even if the latter was a much better film). Bruno Ganz doesn’t have much screen time in this though he certainly makes the most of what he has yet again. Willem Dafoe is as creepy and unsettling as he always is although I’m still not entirely sure what his character was supposed to be. Maybe the Angel of Death. I really just don’t have a certain answer. Mikhail Gorbachev (yes, the former premier of the Soviet Union) had a small cameo. So, Wim Wenders obviously had some serious pull back in the day for casting.

Despite its artistic ambitions, one of the reasons that Wings of Desire succeeded so completely was in its childlike simplicity. It’s not simplicity in structure or philosophical potency, but a simplicity of plot and narrative. By abandoning any honest notion of plot, Wings of Desire was able to focus solely on placing the audience in the emotional and psychological state of these immortal beings who are forced to watch humanity as distant voyeurs rather than true participants. It examined the beauty in the smaller moments of life by showing us the dullness of eternity and passive observation. Faraway, So Close! attempts to tell an actual plot and in the process, it sacrifices the symbolic power of the image and the engagement of meditative contemplation. Others may appreciate the more plot-driven nature of this film, but ultimately, it overreaches itself and fails to reach any of the emotional and spiritual heights of the original film because it becomes slightly too self-righteous and starry-eyed. While I consider Wings of Desire to be one of the more uplifting films I’ve watched for this blog, I also thought it had  a seriously commendable subversive streak. Faraway, So Close! lacks any of the edge of its predecessor, even though this film shows the occasional flash of a disheartened pessimism.

It’s perhaps unfair to compare this film so much to the original since it’s very clear that Wim Wenders was trying to craft a very different story thematically and visually, but since it’s still a direct sequel, I think the comparison has to be made, and in the end Faraway, So Close! simply doesn’t fit in the same league of daring and adventurous film-making as Wings of Desire. Had Wings of Desire not existed and I was able to look at this film in a context-free vacuum, perhaps its score would be a little higher, but knowing exactly what Wim Wenders is capable of makes me more than a little disappointed in this particular entry in his film library. While I can’t recommend this film with as much enthusiasm as its predecessor, it may still hold plenty of interest for fans of foreign cinema, and if you’re somehow reading this post without having seen Wings of Desire, you should drop whatever you’re doing and watch it. It’s probably the best movie I’ve watched since The Tree of Life a couple months ago.

Final Score: B

Two German films in a row? That’s slightly unusual, but when they’re both excellent movies, I’m not going to complain. I just finished the emotional roller-coaster that was 2004’s Head-On, an unconventional love story in every sense of the word, and if it failed to match the magic and power of Wings of Desire, it should take comfort in the fact that Wings of Desire was a genuine masterwork of a film. Tomorrow (provided I get around to it), I should be watching Fellini’s 8 1/2 so apparently, it’s just a foreign film type of weekend, and aren’t those the best kinds of weekends? Perhaps it’s appropriate that the lead female of the film portrays Shae on HBO’s Game of Thrones because this was the German answer to the Sid and Nancy “mutual destruction” subgenre of the romantic drama field. Head-On is not for the faint of heart, but if you want a bloody and subversive romance, Head-On is what would happen if you took most (but not all) of the graphic violence out of True Romance and replaced it with social commentary about the Turkish immigrant experience in Germany as well as fundamental religious beliefs.

Lonely, alcoholic, and rage-fueled Turkish widower Cahit Tomruk (Birol Unel) decides to end his miserable existence collecting empty bottles at a Berlin concert hall by crashing his car full-speed into a brick wall. When he survives his suicide attempt, he’s committed to a clinic where he meets the beautiful but equally broken Sibel Guner (Game of Thrones‘ Sibel Kekilli), a young Turkish woman who also tried to kill herself to escape her life under the thumb of her strictly fundamentalist family. Almost immediately upon meeting Cahit, Sibel asks him to marry him as a way to get out of her father’s house (where her brother broke her nose as a child just for holding hands with a boy). She doesn’t love him or want to be loved. She just wants an excuse to escape and be on her own so she can finally live her own life. Cahit initially rejects her offer but when Sibel slices her wrist open in a crowded bar to prove how seriously damaged her home life is, Cahit finally gives in. Sibel wasn’t kidding when she said she wanted to live her own life though, and although she and Cahit share a home, they both have sex with other people, and even when they finally begin developing feelings for one another, it only spirals them further into inevitable tragedy.

If there’s one word that I would use to describe this film, it’s “intense.” Sweet lord. Based on its premise, you think it’s going to be an “odd couple” romantic drama where an initially incompatible couple learn to love each other by living together. They certainly become attracted to one another over the course of the film, but it only leads to tragedy and heartbreak. There’s a dark sexuality dripping in every frame of the film and Birol Unel brings a Brando-esque machismo and intensity to the role. He reminded me of a more sympathetic (but equally violent) version of Ray Winstone’s character in Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth. He is a force of almost pure destructive energy, and when he’s drawn into the uncontrollable hedonism of Sibel’s life, explosions are practically guaranteed. I’ve never seen Birol Unel in a film before and he immediately made an impression as a foreign talent to watch. However, the real star was Sibel Kekilli. Her performance recalls (but actually predates) both Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It was the type of raw, naked performance that makes a star and since she won several European industry awards for her performance, others obviously agreed. Her transformation over the course of the film is simply an astounding feat both in the way she physically presents herself but also the subtleties of her emotion and performance. I wish she was this engaging as Shae on Game of Thrones.

While I think this was one of the ugliest shot films that I’ve watched in a while (shaky, unprofessional hand-held footage that did little to immerse me more in the world which is the entire point of shooting a movie handheld), I’m able to forgive it’s technical shortcomings because of how brutal its story was. The movie’s pacing could feel slightly sluggish at time but there were lots of great moments where the film compelled you to keep watching even when you desperately wanted to turn away. There might not have been a single moment which etched itself into my brain quite as deeply as Ray Winstone nearly beating his wife to death in Nil by Mouth (for some reason that was the film that kept springing to mind during Head-On), but there were a ton of moments that came close. Whether it was Sibel’s multiple suicide attempts, a scene in a bar which continually ups the sense of dread and impending apocalypse til the terrible, tragic moment finally arrives, or the small moments of Cahit alone exploding against a world that has done him so much harm, the film paints a tale of violence, lust, and tragic love. The way that it explores how sexual repression by religious families leads to acting out and potentially catastrophic rebellion only hammers home this film’s mission to subvert traditional notions of romance and the traditional romantic film.

If you’re sick and tired of Hollywood fairy-tale romances, Head-On will punch you in the gut and leave you asking for it do it one more time. With a premise that consistently struck me as the building blocks of a Shakespearean tragedy (without the Bard’s subtlety or humor), Head-On‘s wonderful story which more often subverts romantic cliches and tropes than plays them straight is a modern romance for the modern cynic. It’s heavy material and unflinching eye for the brutality of its subjects may turn some off but if you can sit through the most masochistic moments of our “heroes,” you’ll be reward with a stark look at love gone terribly wrong. In a world where schlock like The Lucky One makes reams of money in the box office, you need films like Head-On to remind you that not every story is stale, and that we don’t always need to have a happy ending.

Final Score: B+

Out of the over 200 films I’ve reviewed for this blog in the last year, there have been a handful of films that I would immediately describe more as visual poetry/tone poems than as conventionally structured cinema. Stroszek (one of the only films whose score I want to retroactively increase because my respect/appreciation for it has grown infinitely since I first viewed it), La Strada, and The Tree of Life made the conscious decision to forsake complex narrative for unyielding emotion and mood. Imagery and atmosphere took precedence over plot and for that, they’ve always stood out. When I’m watching a film like that, I get the same kind of intellectual engagement that I associate more with reading a book than with watching a movie. It’s ironic since films like this emphasize the visual aspect of cinema (particularly in the way that images can create emotional reactions) but they stimulate my mind more than the wordiest “Award-bait” dramas. Directors like Herzog, Fellini, and Malick realize that form can follow function and the power you can wrest away from the visual story. I love what a new friend of mine called “verbal volleyball” films but sometimes you just need to have your mind and heart overwhelmed with a visually arresting experiencing and 1987’s Wings of Desire from German director Wim Wenders is sure to sate that yearning.

In Cold War Berlin, two immortal angels, Damiel (Downfall’s Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), invisibly observe the comings-and-goings of the world. With a mission to study and testify to the human experience, they float around the city hearing the thoughts of the citizens and providing unknown spiritual comfort to those in need. Both angels joke about discovering what it would be like to cease their eternal existence and take on the mantle of personhood to experience the ups and downs of human life. They long to see color, to be able to touch the world around them, to experience the wonders of life when time finally has meaning. When Damiel’s wanderings draw him to a circus on the eve of its final performance, he espies a young trapeze artist, Marion (Solveig Dommartin), and instantly falls in love with her. Deciding to renounce his immortality once and for all, Damiel becomes a person and experiences the beauty in life that so many of us take for granted while Cassiel is forced to remain an observer of the tragedies of mankind.

When told through the point of view of the angels, the film is shot in such a rich and striking black-and-white that you’d think you stumbled across a long-lost classic from the black and white era. It is only the moments when the film is told through humanity’s point of view that the world is jolted back into color (and the color palette is heavily saturated). Perhaps its because of the wonderful Blu-Ray transfer, but the shadows and contrast in the black and white scenes are among the most sharp and crisp I’ve ever seen. The cinematographer, Henri Alekan, was making films in the early days of Jean Cocteau, and in its Fellini-esque magic, the visual deluge of the film enveloped me in a way that no film has since I watched The Tree of Life. The film has its share of extended scenes (which provide the emotional glue holding the film together) but the heart of the physical disconnect and urban loneliness that the film spends so much time meditating on arises in the loosely connected and disjointed moments where Damiel and Cassiel flitter through the town helping to bear the burden of other’s suffering and in the film’s minimalist script, the beautifully shot scenes surrounding these moments raises the film to a masterwork of cinematic art.

Two months ago, I made it through two-thirds of Bruno Ganz’s historical drama Downfall (covering the last days of Hitler’s life) before I decided to take a nap and I never finished it. His performance as Hitler was one of the most ferocious and ultimately brave (by both humanizing Hitler while still showing how monstrous he could be) performances of any film that’s name isn’t There Will Be Blood. For what I hope are obvious reasons, Damiel is a much more subtle and low-key role than the Fuhrer, yet somehow Ganz manages to make this one nearly as interesting (if not as incendiary). Damiel has very little in the way of lines despite being the main character. In fact, most of his lines are voiced-over inner monologues. Yet, with an expressive face (that forces me to make another Fellini comparison) that seems right out of Fellini Satyricon, his performance moved me to complete heartbreak for a longing for that childlike sense of innocence and wonder. Otto Sander had the even more difficult task as the more taciturn and reserved Cassiel, but in a scene where he fails to prevent a man’s suicide, he tore my heart out with his anguish. Peter Falk also managed to be a scene-stealer essentially playing a fictionalized version of himself (in some really weird meta-commentary that I didn’t really understand).

It’s at moments like these where I truly wish I had a partner for this great experiment in examining the history of cinema. While I would never wish having to sit through garbage like War Horse on another living being, movies that ask such grand questions and paint such a poetic picture practically demand someone else to discuss them with. I have ideas on the themes of this film but as someone who’s read too much Nietzsche, I know my interpretations of something this ambiguous may ultimately only be a reflection of my personality. The film is at times an ode to the transitory. It’s a celebration of life and all its wonders even in its most tragic. These angels aren’t solely guardian angels. As said by Cassiel, their duty is to testify to the history of life (and even what predated life). They are the eternal observers of the human condition. So, in some ways, the film also acts as a commentary of the way we interact with what we observe and the voyeurism of the visual arts (i.e. the film you’re watching). It explores the ripple of memory and the desire to latch onto the past when life is meant to be lived in the now. It’s power is undeniable and I honestly at this point just want a fresh commentary on the film besides my own so if you’ve seen it feel free to leave comments in the comment section below.

I would argue that the only barriers to entry for this film are for those with no patience for foreign films and for those who don’t like more “art-house” cinema (though I would argue that despite its stylistic presentation, Wings of Desire is very accessible as compared to say a David Lynch film). Other than those types of people (who are automatically qualified from being real movie fans in my book), I highly recommend that all of my readers give Wings of Desire a go. It’s a haunting and meditative film whose message has both inspired and moved me. It’s also one of those films that I know I’m going to still be chewing on in the weeks to come. It can be a little slow (when I discovered that I had only been watching the film for an hour and not two like I thought, I was incredibly shocked), but it’s poetic value can’t be diminished even by pacing that may scare off the average movie-goer. As a cynic, you occasionally grow to be distrustful of things that are truly beautiful, but the way that Wings of Desire mixes up melancholy, beauty, innocence, and unbridled joy make it a must-watch film.

Final Score: A

 

I tend to turn my nose up at kitschy sentimentality. It’s not that I’m incapable of feeling genuine, happy human emotion. I simply think that film-makers try to exploit easily manipulated emotions for cheap dramatic effect. One of the (many) reasons that The Tree of Life was so exceptional to me was the way its optimistic and heartfelt message never once felt artificial or forced. Whenever films come along that an incredibly sentimental and warm emotional undertone, I am immediately skeptical and cynical. So, when one of those films is actually enjoyable and genuine, it is a welcome escape from the pessimism at the heart of so much great cinema. 2001’s Nowhere in Africa won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 2002 Academy Awards (it’s weird that the tenth Oscars since then is Sunday), and while the movie is long (140 minutes) and feels even longer, it is a poignant and obviously heartfelt film with an attention to often overlooked historical detail that should be enlightening for anyone with an interest in foreign cinema and a less studied side of the Jewish WWII experience.

In 1938, after spending six months in Kenya and nearly dying of malaria, German lawyer (and Jew) Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze) is finally able to bring his wife Jettel (Julianne Kohler) and his young daughter Regina (Lea Kurke as a child and Karoline Eckertz as a teenager) to Africa in order to escape the impending persecution of the Jews in their native Germany. Making his living as a cattle farmer, Walter must struggle to acclimate his high-society wife to the realities of African living while his daughter grows up in a culture entirely different than the one where he was raised. As Regina grows up, she begins to have more in common with the African tribesmen that she befriends thanks to the family’s cook, Owour (Sidede Onyulo), than the other British and German children she meets at her school. This new homeland threatens to tear apart the marriage of Walter and Jettel and matters only become more complicated when the British government arrests every German refugee in the nation and puts them in (very posh) prison camps. When Jettel sleeps with a British soldier in order to secure her husbands release and ability to work on a British farm, their marriage is put to the test and eventually even their loyalties to their homeland over their new home in Africa becomes a problem over the 10 years that the film takes place.

We haven’t watched a German film for this blog since Werner Herzog’s Stroszek in September (which was great) unless you count the Danish (but German produced) The Monastery (which I don’t since it’s mostly a Scandinavian production). Nowhere in Africa continues the streak of nothing but top notch German films that I’ve watched on here (including Das Boot and The White Ribbon). I’m having trouble making up my mind about whether or not I think the film is way too long and just way too slow. Even if it was, it doesn’t undermine my appreciation of the film. The movies plot isn’t exactly propulsive. More often than not, it’s a study in the day-to-day life and fight for survival that the Redlich family endured when they arrived in Africa, but it’s chock full of so many interesting details and cultural tidbits that I can forgive it for inching along at its own deliberate pace. The movie feels at least an hour longer than its already lengthy running time, and while I became very attached to these characters (particularly Regina and Owour), the film took its own time to lay out the details of the complexity and competing desires of this expatriated family.

One of the most engaging aspects of the film was the way it really explored the hypocrisy of many of the refugees who emigrated to Africa and the way that they treated the African natives after they had been abused for racial reasons back in Europe. Jettel doesn’t begin the film as a very nice woman and watching her steady transformation to a woman that loves Africa and doesn’t want to leave its people was one of the most rewarding aspects of the film. Unlike so many films that deal with hot button issues like race and especially the Holocaust, this movie doesn’t find one race miraculously saving a downtrodden other race, but instead finds two people who have experienced exploitation and destruction finding their grace in each other. At no point did I find this film to be either condescending to the Jews (it’s based off an autobiographical novel of the same) or the Africans, and while each groups were show to have their own strange quirks, watching Regina become the primary link between the African tribal culture of Owour and the European genteelness of her family was fascinating. Similarly, Regina’s coming of age was the emotional tie that kept this film from ever becoming too slow as seeing her grow up was always interesting.

Still, despite all my praise for the film, it’s a serious problem when I’ve thought nearly two hours has passed and the movie’s only been on for a little over one. The movie’s languid pace will be too much for some, although for anyone with an interest in emotionally uplifting cinema with a veracity that is far too rare in today’s market, Nowhere in Africa is a delight. The film could have left around 30 minutes or so on the cutting room floor, but even its seemingly endless running time shouldn’t ward you away because at least this excessive attention to detail gives the movie a lived in and authentic quality that is its primary selling point. Whenever I think of the great nations for foreign cinema, Germany is never the first nation to spring to mind, but Nowhere in Africa is just another example from this blog of Germany being one of the most under-appreciated outlets of foreign films. For all students of foreign cinema, this is another movie to add to your list.

Final Score: B+

The very first film that I reviewed for this blog way back in the beginning of February was the 1991 Oscar-winning documentary In the Shadow of the Stars which chronicles a year or so in the life of the chorus members of the San Francisco Opera House. I reviewed two other documentaries around that time, but it has been several months since I last watched a documentary feature to review for this blog (March 25th to be exact with the understated Black Sun). It wasn’t a conscious decision to avoid documentary films because it’s a medium that I have much respect and admiration for. Simply put, a documentary hadn’t showed up on my master list for movies since then, but I have another one coming up shortly on my Netflix queue again to make up for lost time. I just finished the quiet and intimate The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun, a Danish documentary that may not live up to the high watermark of the other documentaries I’ve watched, but it was a moving and heartfelt film with a story that managed to worm its way into my heart.

The Monastery is the story of the titular Mr. Vig who is an 80 year old man who wishes to transform his beautiful yet rundown castle in the Danish countryside into a monastery for the Russian Orthodox church. Mr. Vig is a lively and intelligent fellow but doesn’t necessarily interact with people very well and he has been a bachelor his entire life. The Russian church sends a group of nuns led by the fiery and uncharacteristically willful Sister Ambrovija to inspect the castle and to see if it can be turned into a monastery. Since the castle has begun to fall apart and is in drastic need of repairs in certain areas, Sister Ambrovija and Vig begin to quarrel over the methods of fixing the castle and various other technical aspects of the transformation into the monastery. It is a simple tale of a clashing of two personalities as well as the devotion of two wildly different individuals to a very a similar cause.

The strength of the film lies in the dichotomy between the relative simplicity of its tale against the backdrop of its eccentric protagonist and his intractable foil. Mr. Vig begins the film as simply a man who wishes to transform his castle into a monastery so that he can create something enduring and seems a man of simple faith. But we slowly learn more about him such as all of the Buddhist imagery he keeps in his house which causes immediate friction with the nuns as well as his complete lack of interest or understanding with women that has existed since his mother who he only ever kissed once. Up until the final frames of the film, we get an even more interesting and clearer picture of Mr. Vig who is far more integral to the success of the film than the story of erecting the monastery. The scenes where he quarrels with Sister Ambrovija are rather entertaining as neither is willing to back down and Sister Ambrovija subverts every expectation of the docile and obediant nun.

Perhaps because I am not a man of faith, I was never quite able to fully engage myself with the story on display here. As much as I found the characters intriguing, the simple building of a monastery was not enough to fully grab my attention, and much of the bickering between the two simply reminded me of the things I didn’t like about religion in the first place. For people that are fans of documentary film-making, this isn’t one of the greatest documentaries ever made, but it’s still quirky and eccentric enough to stand out in its own special way. For those who are especially vitriolic towards religion, you may want to avoid it, but for casual agnostics such as myself, you can still find some beauty and humanity in this picture. For those who are of faith, I’m sure you’ll find this to be a much more rewarding and touching experience than even I did and so to you, I recommend it heartily.

Final Score: B

I got this movie in the mail nearly a month and a half ago from Netflix. The first copy that I was sent didn’t even work and so I had to send it back to get a functional copy. By the time a copy that worked came in the mail, I had started school and a new job and didn’t have time to watch movies. I’m a moron for waiting this long to watch such a beautiful and moving film as Werner Herzog’s Stroszek. The lat two movies I watched were sort of disappointing, and leave it to the Germans to provide me one of the most scathing and tragic examinations of the American dream that I have ever seen put to celluloid. It’s been a while since I’ve watched a film with such bleak fatalism and morose undertones, but despite the black-hole of despair that constitutes much of this film, I found myself endlessly intrigued by the simple but elegant tale that Herzog puts forth in this instant classic of a film.

Stroszek is the tale of three German immigrants to the United States in the 1970’s. Bruno Stroszek (Bruno. S) has just been released from prison back onto the streets of Berlin where he continues his career as a street performer. Eva (Eva Mattes) is a prostitute who is bullied and abused by her pimps and finds friendship and affection from the strange but kind Bruno, even as her pimps assault Bruno as well. Their kindly neighbor is moving to America and in order to escape the desolation and abuse they receive on the streets of Berlin, Bruno and Eva decide to go with him. Their point of escape is the equally bleak rural Wisconsin countryside where Bruno and Eva quickly learn that the frozen mid-West is not the magical American wonderland they were expecting and that perhaps things here are as bad if not worse than in Germany.

The only other Werner Herzog film that I can remember watching is his American feature Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale which was a serviceable if flawed Vietnam prisoner of war story. I did not expect the level of artistry that I saw on display in this film. Much like There Will Be Blood, the camera is as integral to the story as any aspect of the plot. We have these long, trailing shots of the mid-West scenery juxtaposed against more mundane tracking shots of our protagonists engaged in fairly simple and boring activities, and it creates this interesting dichotomy between the isolated beauty of the surroundings with the mind-numbing redundancy of our lives. The camera often lingers several seconds after the primary action of a scene has ended to capture the most insignificant of details just to remind us of our small and fleeting roles in the world. It has been ages since I’ve watched a movie that had me examining every aspect of what the director was placing in a scene for every scrap of detail and meaning I could. It was intellectually exhilarating and it lent the film a literary sense of ambition and symbolism.

One of the real draws of the film for me besides the stellar direction and thematic elements of the film was the untapped and natural talent of Bruno S. as the film’s star Bruno Stroszek. I was simply blown away by his performance. There was a fierce naturalism to his portrayal of the down-on-his luck immigrant that transcended performance and entered the realm of inhabiting his character. Were he more attractive, his sheer expressiveness would have made him a perfect candidate for a Fellini picture (who more often chose actors based on their faces than acting ability), yet in this film, despite his unconventional looks, he provides an extraordinarily sympathetic hero for this modern morality tale. His performance is literally like nothing else I’ve ever seen. It lacks any of the pretensions of other film roles (even the best performances have an inherent theatrical artificiality), and it exists on a purely natural level that enters your heart in the way that practically no other performances I can think of have.

If the film has one flaw, it’s the sudden and unexpected shift to surrealism in the film’s final frames. We had a fairly realistic and straight-forward tale for much of the film and in it’s last minutes, it shoots off into strange and heavily symbolic territory. It wasn’t bad and I enjoyed the way it tickled my brain, but it didn’t feel very cohesive with the rest of the film. For fans of foreign cinema, this is a must watch movie. It reminded me a lot of El Norte, a Mexican film I had to watch in high school which also took a similarly pessimistic view of the American dream. This movie is not for everyone as it takes a very deliberate and paced approach to development that some would call slow but I simply call detailed, but I like films that I can categorize as being portrait-esque. I’m glad I finally opened the movie I got from Netflix well over a month ago.

Final Score: A-

When it comes to the quality of films that I review for this blog, the quality can be streakier than a poorly washed window. I might watch 4 or 5 movies in a row that I give at least an A- and the same thing could happen with movies that I give no higher than a B to. By this blog’s very nature, I am mostly watching award-winning and nominated films so the quality curve is obviously slightly tilted. Right now, I’m on one of those high quality streaks as this film makes three out of the last four movies I’ve reviewed films that have received the normally elusive score of “A” from me, and honestly, this film was easily the best of the bunch, and only it’s completely exhausting length kept it from the even more elusive “A+”. I just finished Wolfgang Petersen’s classic war picture, Das Boot, and clocking in at three and a half hours, it is officially the longest film I’ve reviewed for this blog but also one of the most thrilling and engaging.

Das Boot is a 1981 German film  that was originally a six hour long miniseries for German television that was edited down to a two and a half hour film and eventually re-released in the 90’s at its current length of 3 1/2 hours. It chronicles the trials and tribulations of the crew of a German U-Boat at the end of World War II as they suffer one near death experience after another. Deeply claustrophobic in presentation, the film examines the psychology and character of the very large crew that services the ship as they turn from a fresh-faced crew of young boys (some crew members excepted) to a battle-hardened and grizzled group of survivors. At the center of the film is the boat’s unnamed Captain played by the marvelous Jurgen Prochnow (Beerfest), who starts the film as a man haunted by the realities of submarine warfare and is broken down even further by film’s ending. Without wanting to ruin anything, the film has one of the most shocking and heart-breaking endings of any film I’ve ever watched.

One of the most fantastic things that the film accomplishes is that despite (for whatever odd reason it doesn’t do it) not naming the vast majority of the cast besides their rank on the ship, you get a very large number of compelling and complete psychological portraits of the crew of this ship. Lieutenant Werner starts out as an eager and bright-eyed journalist who is meant to feed the German propaganda machine by capturing one of the “heroic” U-Boats in action but he ends up a disillusioned and broken mess by the end of the film. One of the other named crew members, Johann, is a veteran of countless patrols but during one harrowing encounter he cracks under the nerve-wracking pressure of the Allied attack. You have the sheer will and determination of the Chief Engineer who saves the ship from certain doom. There is the young man who writes a letter every day to his French girlfriend despite knowing that he’s probably never going to see her again. You even have the the one member of the crew who is loyal to the Nazi regime instead of just loyal to Germany who comes to see the reality of his situation.

From a technical perspective, this film is practically flawless. As I’ve read elsewhere on the internet, they created a virtually perfect recreation of one of the German U-Boats that was actually used, and the extreme attention to detail and realism is apparent in virtually every scene. At no point in the film, did I feel like any thing was put in to look cool or stylistic. It served a legitimate historical purpose. Also, I have never watched a film that made me feel as claustrophobic as this film does. The ship itself was tiny and very crowded. There was hardly any room to sleep or walk, let alone maneuver and be comfortable. That feeling persisted through out the entire film. The sense of claustrophobia was practically smothering and I was in a more comfortable sized bed-room. When I finish this review, I may walk around my house a little bit just to get a sense of freedom. Also, the camera-work did a great job of really placing you in the action and tension of the film’s many moments when life and death hanged in a precarious and inherently chaotic balance.


The entire cast gave stellar performances, but special mention must be given to Jurgen Prochnow as the Captain. His transformation throughout the film is really something to behold. While he starts the film off hardened and a little beaten, he still has some life in him and the ability to smile and appreciate things. By the time the film ends, he is simply alive and surviving. Prochnow achieves this illustrious turn through a frightening sense of weariness. While I’m sure Petersen applied a lot of make-up to achieve the haunted look on Prochnow’s face, no make-up can achieve the power of his thousand-mile stare and hauntingly piercing blue eyes. When it comes to truly losing one’s self in a role, this is quite a powerful performance. While I would need more time to think about where it stands against the best male performances I’ve seen for this blog, I can definitely say that for the current 50 movie set I’m working on for this blog, Prochnow is sitting comfortably on top.

I mentioned this particular concept in one of my reviews for Band of Brothers, but it’s very difficult for a war film to be anti-war, because by its very nature, showing acts of heroism and bravery will inherently glorify said actions and therefore war itself. Francois Truffaut was the man to really analyze that concept. I can easily say that Das Boot is one of a handful of films that I can name that really is anti-war and in no way, shape, or form glorifies war itself. The over-riding theme of this film besides the battle for survival is that war is Hell. And in Das Boot, Hell might be an understatement. This film consists of suffering, suffering, and a little more suffering, and then it gives you Hell itself for its terrifying and bewildering final act. Much like The Deer Hunter, there is no glory or heroism in this film. There is simply survival.

I’m Jewish, and it’s going to have to take a great movie to make me cheer for Nazis. The sheer fact that Das Boot accomplishes this feat would by itself nearly make this a great film. The fact that it is easily the most compelling and authentic chronicles of the hellish realities of war since The Deer Hunter confirms this greatness. I realize that this review is one of the longest that I’ve ever written, but what else can I do for a movie that is of such epic length and ambition. I wish I could give this film an “A+” as it so clearly deserves this, and I bet I would give the mini-series an “A+”; however, 3 and a half hours is just a long time to sit through any film, especially one where there is a lot of down time. If you’re a fan of war movies that challenge your brain and emotions more than your adrenal gland, this is simply one of the best war films that I’ve ever seen, and you need to watch it.

Final Score: A

Whenever one watches a foreign movie, one has to remember that foreign cinema is as much a product of its creators culture and environment as it is of the creator himself. When American films are littered with nods or references or allegorical constructs to bits of American culture, we often take such things for granted, yet if a foreigner were to watch one of our films, they might not understand the nuances of a scene that is singularly American in nature. The movie I just watched for this blog, 2009’s The White Ribbon, is a film that I can easily call German to its core, and because I don’t have a centuries worth of German history and culture at my disposal and a deep understanding of the mindset of Germans just before World War I, I found the film to be a tad bit inaccessible.

The White Ribbon is a highly allegorical tale of a small town in Germany, right on the eve of World War I. The film begins with the local doctor being flung from his horse because an unknown person(s) had set up a thin wire across his gates trying to injure him. Throughout the rest of the film, the viciousness of acts perpetrated against various members of the town only increases, and it culminates in a retarded boy being tortured nearly to death in the woods. While some films attempt to be a character study of particular individuals, this movie attempts to analyze the psyche of an entire town, and throughout the film, you get fairly detailed looks into the lives and mindsets of a fairly diverse subset of the town’s population.

Many people have wondered just how a government like Hitler’s Nazi Party could ever gain control of a country. People wonder how a civilized nation like Germany could turn its back on so much atrocity and evil. Through a psychological examination of the darkness that exists in the town through a patriarchal and oppressive culture that is spread like a virus down unto the children, the movie attempts to posit its own answer to that question. At first, I thought the film was going to be a who-dun-it about the various crimes that had been committed across the town, but after about 45 minutes in, I finally realized what kind of story the film was trying to tell. The various acts of inhumanity and intolerance throughout this film are quite disturbing and fairly difficult to watch, but if you accept that the film is attempting to provide an explanation for Germany’s later history, it serves as a chilling image.

The cinematography of the film was absolutely fantastic. It was shot in a beautiful black-and-white, and the director made use of some clever and original camera angles that were instrumental in keeping your brain engaged in the action on screen in a better way than traditional shots would have accomplished. I wish I could say the film’s editing was as exceptional, but since this film ran nearly two and a half hours long, there was several times that the movie’s focus could have been narrowed, and I can think of several scenes just off the top of my head that should have ended up on the cutting room floor.

If, like me, you love foreign movies, then you should definitely give this one a go. It won the Golden Globe for best foreign film and was nominated at the Oscar’s for the same category. If you speak German or consider yourself to be a bit of a buff on German history or culture, you should without question watch this film and then get back to me and talk with me about it so that I can understand it better. I felt like there was so much happening in this film that I wasn’t able to completely grasp because of the culture barrier. I don’t think this is one of the greatest foreign films that I’ve watched on here, but it left me with a ton to think about, which isn’t something I can say about many films, American or foreign.

Final Score: B+