They?re Still Painting, and More: The Leipzig Art Scene

First a success, then a bubble: the hype surrounding the ?New Leipzig School? put the city on the map of the art world, but also blinkered its vision.... more more

GoetheInstitute

14/02/2007

Breathless 6

See all our Berlinale film reviews at a glance.

Smart: Hal Hartley's "Fay Grim" (Panorama)

Hal Hartley has shot a sequel to "Henry Fool" (1997) ten years down the road. The first film was the story of the eponymous mephistophelean hero (Thomas Jay Ryan), who inspires garbage collector Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) to write poetry worthy of a Nobel Prize. At the end Henry is on the run, his wife Fay (Parker Posey) – Simon's sister – is left alone with their son and Simon is jailed as an accomplice.

Ten years later Henry is still missing, Simon is still in jail and Fay is struggling along with her 14 year old son, who was kicked out of school when he was caught getting a blow job from two schoolgirls. But this summary is misleading. The tone of "Fay Grim" is more farcical than that of its scatological netherworld tragicomic predecessor. Between the two films are others – among them "No Such Thing" and "The Girl From Monday" – that no one liked and almost no one saw (and which never made it to Germany). Hartley moved to Berlin and shot the film very convincingly – even the parts that take place in Queens – in Berlin.

Objects come into play that introduce a hair-raising plot. A hand-sized projector with a crank comes in the post. Turning the crank projects a porn film onto the wall with inscriptions that cry out to be decoded. And then there are Henry Fool's diaries. They have no literary merit, there's no doubt, but it turns out they contain an encoded text that the world's secret services are hotly pursuing, first and foremost the inscrutable Mr. Fullbright (Jeff Goldblum). These objects are what Hitchcock called "McGuffins", things insignificant in themselves, yet which keep the plot moving and the suspense high.

They are McGuffins with Hal Hartley too, and no doubt he doesn't take all this spying nonsense seriously for one second. And yet the relationship between plot and McGuffin functions exactly the other way round with the Master of Suspense. It is namely the lack of seriousness which infects the film and drives the plot into absurdity. Everything that takes place depends on everyone treating the McGuffin, the writing in books, on the walls, with deadly seriousness. This seriousness, which takes everyone in its grip is, however, not the seriousness of the film itself. Hal Hartley is still a master of absurd dialogues, which in all their absurdity only occasionally culminate in actual funniness. And it is a great pleasure to watch the words and moves of the actors and actresses, including those in the supporting roles, from Elina Löwensohn to Jasmin Tabatabei.

The whole madness of the world today is present in "Fay Grim". But it has been freshly pieced together in words that tumble from the mouths of the characters that Hartley choreographs with such virtuosity through his wonkily set images. There is no pretence to naturalness here and no people of flesh and blood. And yet they act with great precision in a game, whose rules remain largely obscured to us, the onlookers. It is a closed, completely artificial world, brimming with bits and bobs of a reality which then again is not a completely altered.

It is hard to say where it's heading. If one ignores Istanbul and an Islamic fundamentalist, a woman Zionist extremist and a Russian stewardess who unfortunately all lose their lives. It's like watching a tightrope act being executed with the utmost skill and concentration, without knowing at what height it's taking place. Is that the floor under their feet? Or is a bottomless abyss lurking between, under or behind every word? I cannot say. All I know is that it is smart and savvy and a pleasure from the first sentence to the last. And I also know that I won't see a more intelligent film in the festival this year.

Ekkehard Knörer

"Fay Grim". Director: Hal Hartley. With Parker Posey, Jeff Goldblum, Jasmin Tabatabei, Saffron Burrows, Sibek Kekilli. USA 2006, 118 Minutes (Panorama)



"The Lark Farm" by
Paolo and Vittorio
Taviani (Berlinale Special)

The Tavianis have made a feature film about the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. Between 1915 and 1917, hundreds of thousands of Armenians were murdered or sent on death marches. The Taviani brothers tell this through the eyes of the Armenian Avakian family, land owners with a neighbourly if not exactly friendly relationship to the Turks on their property. This is brought to an abrupt end when the government gives the orders to kill the Armenians. The dying Otttoman Empire is at war with Russia, and the Armenians, as one Turkish officer tells us in the film, are collaborating with the Russians with an eye to constructing their own state. They are liars and traitors. "If the French have France and the Italians have Italy, why shouldn't we have Turkey for the Turks! he cries, to thunderous applause. The Armenians are foreign bodies, and must be eliminated.

This is familiar stuff. The reasons given for genocide are always the same. The Avakians and their employees and their families all flee to a house in the country, the lark house. Turkish soldiers hunt them down and the men are killed and the women sent on a death march into the desert near Aleppo. The Tavanis spare us no details. The beheading of the father, the castration of the Armenian doctor, the death of a small boy in the family – and later: every imaginable humiliation of the women, rape, torture.

The film does not portray the Turks wholesale as inhumane. There's the young officer, in love with the daughter of the house, who chooses to run back to the front rather than help her out when he finds out what the Armenians have in store for them. There's the general who condemns the murder of the whole family, but makes no effort to to help them. He does, however, promise the women that their murdered men, sons and brothers will receive a proper burial. There's the young Turkish officer (played by Moritz Bleibtreu), a country lad, who loathes his job as guard of the death caravan. And of course there are the fanatics and brutal soldiers, who simply enjoy torturing and killing. Although the only one to actually actively assist is the beggar Nazim.

Were this film ever to make it into Turkish cinemas, it might have a similarly cathartic effect to Marvin J. Chomsky's "Holocaust" series in Germany, when police station switch boards were flooded with confessional calls. It would certainly make no impression on the police, who sneeringly congratulated Hrant Dink's murderer on his deed. But all the Turks who think the whole thing has been blown out of proportion - "and weren't the Armenians to blame as well?" might have be persuaded to rethink their position. And that would be significant.

I personally have had enough of this type of film, whether it's about the Armenians, the Holocaust, or the Japanese war horrors. I don't need to see pictures to be able to image the agonies of torture victims. It doesn't transport me beyond the limits of the imagination, within which a film is also contained. The more films of this kind are shown at the Berlinale, the more obscene I find this embedding of real horror in feature films. Instead of suffering with victims, I start to ask myself about the making of. The torture scenes for example: a screaming girl is captured, the soldiers rip off her clothes, tie her naked to a tree stump, threaten her with torches, and cut off her head. The scene is set in the half-light. The girl looks very beautiful, her naked body is not exposed but tastefully presented. What she is subjected to, we hear from a soldier, is the typical punishment for attempted escape. I would like to see a film which shows the Tavianis discussing how to light and direct this scene – "Look Paolo, the soldiers have to hold her like this, otherwise her arse is in the picture too long."

This is how I react. These films don't bring the story nearer; on the contrary, they increase the distance.

Anja Seeliger

"La masseria delle allodole – The Lark Farm". Directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani. Starring Paz Vega, Moritz Bleibtreu, Alessandro Preziosi, Angela Molina, Tcheky Karyo, Arsinee Khan (Berlinale Special)


Torn between metaphysics and materiality: Christian Petzold's "Yella" (Competition)

A woman is in motion: in a train through space. In a narrative through time. Still, something is not quite right here regarding space and time. The woman in question is Yella (Nina Hoss), and she lives in Wittenberge. The business belonging to her husband Ben (Hinnerk Schönemann) has failed, upon which she has decided to leave him. He stalks her, grabbing her on the way to the train station. Then he steers the car in which they are driving over the bridge and into the Elbe River. The car sinks into the waves, Yella and Ben are dead. But they are not dead after all, they drag themselves onto land. Yella makes it to the train station and travels to Hanover, where she has been offered a new job. Nothing comes of this either, but she meets Philipp (Devid Striesow), who earns his money as a venture capitalist working with corporations whose existences are threatened. Yella is good with a balance sheet, they make joint appearances before men for whom they represent a last hope. Something is not right with the balance sheets, something is not right with Philipp, something is not right with Yella, something is not right with space and time.

"Yella" is a film about ruptures - of perception, of reality, of the lives of the main protagonists. But a rupture also goes through the film "Yella" itself. This production represents a kind of doubled, hybridised remake. Christian Petzold borrowed the framework of the action from Herk Harvey's ghostly horror film "Carnival of Souls", and its interior from Harun Farocki's documentary "Nicht ohne Risiko" (Not Without Risk). "Carnival of Souls" is a classic among midnight movies, a metaphysical meditation dressed up as a cheap genre exercise, one that does not shy away from garish effects. In "Nicht ohne Risiko", on the other hand, Harun Farocki rigorously documents the world of venture capital, a world where huge sums mingle with panic and existential menace - and it is well known that Farocki, who was one of Petzold's instructors at the film academy, occasionally acts as a "dramaturgical adviser" on his films.

The decisive question is, in fact, dramaturgical in nature, at least at first glance: how do the things come together? What happens when the horror genre is crossed with Farocki's documentary, that is to say, when types of cinema lying more or less at opposite ends of the spectrum are fused? (Although it should not be overlooked that Herk Harvey made only one feature film, namely "Carnival of Souls"; the remainder of his wide-ranging oeuvre consists of teaching and industrial films. He approached the genre, then, from a perspective by no means dissimilar to Farocki's.) Is "Yella" more Farocki or more horror? Or is it simply pure Petzold – but what would that mean? Should this hybridisation of alien strains not necessarily lead to something other, something independent, something that displays rupture as its own law, hence arriving at a realized form? Does this happen with "Yella"? Do all of these questions sound too sceptical? I must confess that this film failed to convince me. Consistent though it may be in design, it struck me as equally indecisive in execution.

Does it finally become apparent with "Yella", say, that Christian Petzold's films are always metaphysical meditations which are set in rigorously framed, realistic scenarios? Crossings, so to speak, between the purely material and the purely immaterial? Films, then, in which worlds collide, worlds which, in the normal scheme of things, have nothing to do with one another? An instance of this would be Wolfsburg and tragedy (in "Wolfsburg"). On the one hand, a tremendous awareness of genre (Petzold is a great connoisseur of criminal literature and of Hollywood genre film) - always, however, in the framework of the strongly materialist aesthetic of distance of the "Berlin School" inspired by Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky, with its almost pious horror of every false tone, every rhetorically underhand effect. (But is the underhand effect not precisely the law of the genre?)

If that were the case, then the rupture running through "Yella"would be simply the most explicit formulation of Petzold's aesthetic. And to be sure, Nina Hoss - having played principal roles already in "Toter Mann" (Dead Man) and "Wolfsburg", is a regular in Petzold's oeuvre. An oeuvre that is dominated by female characters whose lives seem to disintegrate in their hands. And who seem to be active along the margins of that taken-for-granted reality otherwise known as the everyday. Who threaten to fall out of this world, who are reticent as a rule, endangered and therefore dangerous. Barbara Auer, Nina Hoss and Julia Hummer in Petzold's work: masters of expression at the edge of expressionlessness. Actresses of a corner-of-the-mouth minimalism, and of the inexpressive gait and the terse word, squeezed out almost tonelessly. The title of Petzold's latest film, "Gespenster" (Ghosts), is exemplary, and could stand above any of his works from recent years. They could all equally be called "Undead", with their reference to the margin, the rupture in the form, but also thematically. To that extent, it seems fitting that what happens to Yella is all too ghostly. In the oddly philistine world of venture capital, she seems like an apparition from a different sphere. She comes from East Germany, but even the difference between East and West emerges here as code for a borderline that is all the more palpable the less it is demarcated. Yella is the woman from the East, who is at home, admittedly, neither here nor there, and who in fact is haunted by both sides of the border, by East and West, by materialism and metaphysics, in a way that renders both sides uncanny. She is a foreign body in a world that becomes - under her gaze and in her hands - strange to her.

But how do things come together? Or does Petzold's film - which he pulls toward genre, yet which itself insists on materialism - fall apart? In "Yella", this question presents itself more urgently than ever before, for the director himself poses it quite openly. In "Yella", each image, right up to the last one, remains open. The status of each individual shot - somewhere between real and unreal, between metaphysics and materialism - is irreducibly unclear. Intentionally so, needless to add. Yet it remains questionable whether a solution has been found to the dilemma which permeates the cinema of Christian Petzold. Or whether instead, this dilemma is now disclosed, as the larger problem in "Yella", more openly than before. To pose the question differently: where does this unclarity - which the film generates so industriously - actually want to lead us? In the end, something is covered up, but this leads to nothing being ultimately clarified.

Ekkehard Knörer

Yella. Director: Christian Petzold. With Nina Hoss, Devid Striesow, Hinnerk Schönemann etc. Germany, 2007, 89 minutes. (Competition)



Politics American style: Frederick Wiseman's documentary "State Legislature" (Forum)

The first scene shows a politician explaining to a school class how politics work in Idaho. We learn that politicians only work in politics for a few months every year. The rest of the time they go back to their normal lives – the man who's talking is a rancher. Open the telephone book, he says, and take the first 105 names you see. In principle that's us. The people we see in the film are not career politicians. And perhaps that is exactly why they take their mandate of representation so seriously. In almost every scene and every debate in the committees and the legislature, we witness how deeply engrained the basic notion of popular representation is.

We are in the state legislature in Boise, Idaho, watching people do politics. The film almost never leaves the statehouse. Just once or twice do we see the building from the outside, for example reflected in the glass facade of a neighbouring tower. The rest of the film shows rooms where people sit, corridors through which citizens move and where lobbyists press their interests. All these separate impressions fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and in the end we have a full image.

Director Frederick Wiseman never gets sidetracked. Digressions are unknown to him. His work, comprising almost forty documentaries, is perhaps the most comprehensive portrait of America in recent decades. With patience and precision, Wiseman focuses above all on American institutions, from the high school ("High School," 1968) to the military ("Basic Training," 1971), to the welfare office ("Welfare", 1975) and Madison Square Garden ("The Garden," 2005 – his only film to be kept from public screening by those portrayed). Wiseman's documentaries give an almost sociological analysis of institutions, and for all their detail they are remarkably abstract. Paradoxically this abstraction results from patient and concentrated observation of seemingly insignificant, negligible details. Every one of the films is minutely composed, a masterwork of editing. Yet precisely by concealing their own artistry, they render reality visible.

"State Legislature" documents both the idea and the praxis of politics in America, showing how even – or precisely – at the semi-professional state level, the two are inseparably linked. The politicians we watch are shown as embodiments of the indissoluble interweaving of praxis and idea.

The omnipresent reference to the founding fathers of the constitution, the ever-present antagonism - even in conservative Idaho - between the principles of freedom and control, all of this determines the most nitty-gritty debates and decision-making. Even if you don't share many or even most of the often reactionary positions and attitudes expressed, "State Legislature" shows what holds not only this state, but the whole of the United States together: the idea that procedures must exist that give people a hearing in matters that concern them. The grandeur of this idea shines through the nuts and bolts of political workings, and Europeans can only look on in astonishment.

Ekkehard Knörer

"State Legislature". Documentary by Frederick Wiseman. USA, 2007, 217 minutes (Forum).


See all our Berlinale film reviews at a glance.

Links:
Competition and Panorama
International forum of new cinema
Retrospective

Get the signandsight newsletter for regular updates on feature articles.
signandsight.com - let's talk european.

 
More articles

Life in a bubble

Wednesday 21 March, 2012

TeaserPicAwarded a Silver Bear at this year's Berlinale, Christian Petzold's new film "Barbara" is a GDR drama set in the early 1980s. Colourful and romantic beyond any nostalgia for the East, it relates the situation of female doctor caught in the circumstances of having applied for an exit visa. For Petzold, the film is not only a highly personal story of a woman in conflict but a film about what was lost - especially for women - with the fall of the Wall in 1989.
read more

Workers of the world, be entertained!

Monday 13 February, 2012

TeaserPicThis year's Berlinale Retrospective "The Red Dream Factory" rediscovers the legendary German-Russian Mezhrabpom-Film (1922-1936). It tells of incredible film successes, ideological misunderstandings and astonishing blindness. By Oksana Bulgakova
read more

Thailand has woken up

Thursday 27 May, 2010

Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai film maker who has just won the Palme d'Or in Cannes, talks to Cristina Nord about the political situation in his country and his films.
read more

Talking to the lord of pain

Tuesday 16 February, 2010

The director Werner Herzog is the president of the jury at this, the 60th Berlinale. Katja Nicodemus met him in Los Angeles to discuss burning Lilliputians, how it feels like to be unsuccessfully shot at, and the life of a lone Bavarian wolf in Hollywood.
read more

Playing Lars

Wednesday 16 September, 2009

Charlotte Gainsbourg spent two months in Germany, either blood-spattered in a dark forest or sealed off in a sterile hotel. She talks to Martina Meister about discovering her limits during the filming of "Antichrist" by Danish director Lars von Trier.
read more

Israel's enemies take no prisoners

Tuesday 7 July, 2009

TeaserPicThe Israeli Defence Forces should be judged by different standards than those used for other armies, says Claude Lanzmann. Fifteen years after the release of "Tsahal", his controversial film about the first Jewish army, the French director talks to Max Dax about the logic of war, the value of Jewish lives and Sharon as shepherd.
read more

Marx: the quest, the way, the destination

Tuesday 20 January, 2009

TeaserPicTaking off where Sergei Eisenstein left off, Alexander Kluge has made a nine-and-a-half hour film about Karl Marx and the fairytale of "Kapital". And it's not a minute too long. By Helmut Merker
read more

Cloud 9 at 70 plus

Thursday 11 September, 2008

Emotional chaos in the elderly and the best aesthetic for folds and wrinkles. Birgit Glombitza talks to Andreas Dresen about geriatric love and sex, and his new film "Wolke 9".

read more

And isn't it baronic

Wednesday 16 April, 2008

Billed as the inspirational story of one of the greatest legends of all times, "The Red Baron" is flying, driving and healing Germany at dizzy cinematic heights. There are just not enough superlatives to do this film justice. By Ekkehard Knörer.
read more

The mild bunch

Monday 18 February, 2008

Only one truly original auteur filmmaker made it into this year's Berlinale Competition. With "Night and Day" Korean director Hong Sangsoo proved himself to be one of the great free-thinking talents of contemporary cinema. This aside, emaciated wishy-washy realism prevailed. By Ekkehard Knörer
read more

Berlinale box

Thursday 14 February, 2008

With the Berlin film festival well underway we pick out some of the highlights. Jose Padilha's "Tropa de Elite" might have all the components of an Egoshooter film but it's far off. Hongkong star Johnnie To's "Sparrow" is a bringer of unadulterated joy. Isabel Coixet's "Elegy" stars a couple of aging Roth rabbits. And P.T. Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" should be enjoyed on an empty stomach.
read more

Bordering on miraculous

Friday 8 February, 2008

A frighteningly intense Daniel Day Lewis, musical accompaniment from Martin Scorsese, Madonna and Patti Smith, home-made filmic fumblings from a music video genius, a mere smidgen of German material and plenty of Far Eastern promise. After the Berlinale Film Festival hit rock bottom last year, it seems a sharp upwards turn is on the cards for 2008.
read more

All eyes on the December children

Wednesday 5 December, 2007

Romania might have only 35 cinemas but it is having a profound effect on the world of film. Christian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes earlier this year and the European Film Prize in Berlin on Saturday. By Jan Schulz-Ojala
read more

Floundering Dutch man

Monday 15 October, 2007

A theme running through this year's Netherlands Film Festival is that of men running after deliverance, preferably in the form of young women. There's plenty of tongue in cheek but no changing the facts: the new man, like the old, needs a muse. By Jann Ruyters
read more

Love and two coffins

Monday 8 October, 2007

German-Turkish director Fatih Akin's "The Edge of Heaven" won the best screen play award at Cannes. Now showing in German cinemas, it is a light, bright film about death, an optimistic requiem full of little utopias. By Katja Nicodemus


read more