Tag Archive: Germany


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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

 

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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+

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+