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Seven Journeys / In Jenen Tagen, West Germany 1947.

Posted by keith1942 on August 2, 2019

Steffen and Sybille in 1933

This film was part of a programme at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2019, “We Are Natives of Trizonia” Inventing West German Cinema, 1945 – 1949. Trizone was the overall term for those parts of Germany occupied by the western Allies; Britain, France and the USA. The Catalogue refers to a popular song of the period, ‘We Are the natives of Trizonia’ / ‘Weir sind die ingeborenen von Trizonesien’. This was a song performed at the Cologne Carnival in 1948 by Karl Berbuer.

“It’s nothing short of a national anthem, a declaration of independence by an occupied people sensing that freedom and new statehood are near.” (Olaf Möller in the Festival Catalogue).

This was  a period when there was a short-lived genre of Trümmerfilme (‘Rubble Films’). The actual devastation, most notably in Berlin, remains an iconic visual image in both German and foreign films. Seven Journeys is not strictly speaking a ‘rubble film’ but the stark and massive ruins of Berlin are a recurring image in the film. The writer [with Ernst Schnabel) and director was Helmut Käutner. We enjoyed a programme of his films at the 2018 Festival. I was impressed with the 1940s and 1950s titles by Käutner, so I was keen not to miss this film.

The film opens in 1945, shortly after the end of the war. Amid the Berlin ruins and rubble we find two men working on an old car. This uses poetic license as the car is 1936 Opel Olympia though the plot goes back to 1933. One of the distinctive features of the film is that it is narrated by the car, [voiced by Käutner himself]. The story offers seven owners of the vehicle over a twelve-year period in flashbacks from the present. The little stories of the people’s experiences provide a commentary on the Third Reich.

The two men working on the car are Karl (Erich Schellow) and Willi (Erich Schellow). Their painstaking labour to make the car serviceable again mirror the parallel efforts of Berliners to salvage what they can among the ruins. As they work they find objects and mementos in the car; each triggering a flashback to one of the stories.

 

  1. The men notice a date carved into the glass of the windscreen. So we meet Sybille (Winnie Markus) who is loved by two men, both of whom propose to her. Steffen (Werner Hinz) is leaving by ship for a post in Mexico. In the evening she goes with Peter (Karl John) into Berlin where they witness a large demonstration. Peter writes the date on the car window with a diamond ring; 30th  January 1933; Hitler becomes Chancellor.

 

  1. The men find a comb in the car. We now meet the family of Wolfgang Buschhagen (Franz Schafheitlin), his wife Elizabeth (Alice Treff) and their daughter Angela (Gisela Tantau). Wolfgang works in a Museum. His friend Wolfgang Grunelius (Hans Nielsen) is a modernist composer. Different people drive in the car and then, Angela, finds her mother’s missing comb in the car. She suspects this is the sign of an affair between Elizabeth and Grunelius.

 

  1. The men notice a clip on the dashboard. We see that this used by Wilhelm Bienert (Willy Maertens) and his wife Sally (Ida Ehre) to hold papers. They own a small shop but the notice on the clip is the notification of the ‘Oath of Disclosure’ which prevents them now owning a business. After the ‘Brown shirts’ smash their shop and others owned by Jews the husband commits suicide.

 

  1. The men find an old horse shoe. We then see it fixed to the dashboard as Dorothea (Erica Balqué) drives round Berlin looking for friends. The man, Jochen (Hermann Schomberg), is leaving to seek safety as the war begins. Both Dorothea and her sister Ruth are involved with Jochen. Dorothea has to decide on her course of action. At one point she is stopped by a soldier. He recognizes the car, it is Peter from 1933, now in the army.

 

  1. The men now notice bullet holes in the chassis. We now see the car on the Soviet front where a driver, August (Hermann Speelmans) is collecting a new lieutenant (Fritz Wagner). Despite August’s fears of partisans the lieutenant insists on driving to the military station through the night. After some hours the moon appears, all is like daylight.

 

  1. The men find some old papers. Now we see the car, back in Berlin, in an underground garage. It is the later stages of the war. Erna (Isa Vermehre) borrows the car as she wants to drive an old friend from the city to the countryside, Her passenger is a Baroness (Margarete Haagen) whose husband has been arrested following the attempted assassination of Hitler. But the journey is interrupted when a policeman demands to see their papers, incriminating papers.

 

  1. When the men inspect the boot they find straw there. The straw is from a barn where the dilapidated cart is seen. A motor-bike dispatch rider takes shelter in the barn, as does a young women with a baby. Marie (Bettina Moissi) and Josef (Carl Raddatz) spends a couple of days sheltering in the barn. Refugees pass during the day and at night bombers pass overhead. Josef gets the car working and he makes a detour from his assignment to drop Marie near Hamburg. He now has to face questioning by roadside patrols.

The narrator, the car, now tries to remember what happened after that, but

“I don’t remember’.

A montage of spinning car wheels has the faces of the characters from the ‘Seven Journeys’ superimposed. And we leave the car and the two mechanics among the Berlin ruins, but flowers are growing in the rubble.

The stories work well and the characters are carefully drawn in relatively brief plot lines. The film makes good use of locations in these stories. This was also the case in an earlier film by Käutner, Under the Bridges / Unter den Brücken (1946). Here he was again working with several of the same crafts people. The cinematography, finely done, is by Igor Oberberg. And the editing, which cuts within and between stories and the film’s present, is by Wolfgang Wehrun.

This film was cut on release by about 20 minutes. What was cut is not clear to me but it seems likely that the censorship was done by the Occupying Powers who remained in control in West Germany; one key component of their policies was the ‘denazification’ campaign. It may be that the lack of conscious guilt in the film was a factor.

The film covers the twelve years of the Third Reich. The characters’ stories are spread across this period leading to the cataclysmic situation as Germany suffered defeat. The Catalogue points out that the stories presented do not offer representation across the population.

In Jenen Tagen is a among the very first productions ventured in the future Trizone. Käutner offers a historical panorama in seven anecdotes, detailing German sorrow, suffering and unexpected benevolence during the Nazi regime, ……. how could Germans not see themselves as the guilty party at that points in time?”

The writer goes on to comment the film

“never suggests that this terror regime functioned only because almost everybody made their compromise-laden peace with it …..”

but also makes the point that

“the good deeds he shows were the exceptions to the rule.”

The film has a little more than thus credits. Thus at the opening the car tells us that,

“when I was young [I thought that] I would last a thousand years … [but] it was only twelve.”

And in an interesting line of dialogue we learn from Peter in the 1933 story that the parade they pass are the Spartacists [Spartakusaufstand, by then The Communist Party of Germany / Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, KPD) And in several stories, as that of the Biernerts, one senses the a malignant and dominant force under which people quality or perish. Moreover, the German population had already had a ‘denazification’ programme enforced on them, which included being forced to watch some of the films of the now opening and horrific concentration camps. My sense is at this time that the occupation powers paid as little attention to German resistance as the German population paid to any national culpability. Films made under mainstream conventions are usually inadequate for such complex situations.

We had a 35mm print in German with English sub-titles. the image and sound were fine so we were able to appreciate the full original version of the film.

 

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Die Bleierne Zeit (The German Sisters, Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1981)

Posted by keith1942 on March 16, 2019

This was another title in the Berlinale retrospective and the audience were fortunate in that the director, Margarethe von Trotta, was there to introduce her film. She first talked about the title of the film which was variously translated and changed during its international release; (there seem to be at least six variants). The German title is a quotation from a famous poem;

Trūb ists heut, es schlummern die Gäng’ und die Gassen und fast will

Mir es scheinen, es sei, als in der bleiernen Zeit

(Gloomy it is today, sleepy are the pathways and lanes and it seems as almost, we are, in the leaden times.) (Friedrich Hölderlin) (Translation Jane Buekett).

The last three words provide the title and a metaphor for the 1950s, a crucial decade for the story and the characters; and for von Trotta herself.

Von Trotta went on to recount how in 1977 she was with fellow film-makers who were working on a portmanteau film addressing in various ways the actions and the current trial of the Red Army Faction [often called the Baader-Meinhof Gang]; Germany in Autumn (Deutschland im Herbst, 1978). Von Trotta was not actually filming and she had a number of long conversations with Christina Ensslin, the sister of a member of RAF Gudrun Ensslin. This inspired her to start work on a screenplay, later this film, which studied the lives and relationships of two sisters. Von Trotta also remarked that the story was influenced by the Sophocles play Antigone, where Antigone is a rebel whilst her sister Iamene is more dutiful. However, in this story, the roles change as the narrative develops.

“The younger, Marianne, has joined the ‘armed resistance’ in West Germany and disappeared into the political underground. Juliane is an editor at a feminist magazine and is judgemental of her sister’s radicalism.” (Retrospective Brochure).

But the film develops far more complexity than is suggested in these bald sentences. Marianne is another brilliant and convincing performance from von Trotta’s regular collaborator Barbara Sukowa. Juliane, an equally good performance, though a more restrained character, is played by Jutta Lampe. We also meet their partners though the male characters pale alongside these powerful women. The exception is Jan, Marianne’s son by a failed marriage.

Early in the film we get a sense of the radically different lives and relationships of the sisters. There is a brief glimpse of the ‘armed resistance’ training with Palestinian fighters in North Africa. The film moves into it most intense mode when Marianne is captured and imprisoned. Juliane visits her regularly and we witness the emotional and sometimes overcharge relationship. We also see, in flashbacks, the earlier life of the two women, including a very strict religious upbringing in the 1950s. The ‘leaden’ 1950s and its silences on German history were a frequent target of attack for the New German Cinema.

It is in the latter stages that Jan becomes an important character. It is also the stage where Juliane has to confront her sister’s death and her suspicions, (widely shared at the time with regard to the deaths of RAF members) of her secret murder by the West German State.

This is an undoubted classic of the New German Cinema. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The central performances are memorable, but the film is carefully constructed as well. There is fine cinematography from Franz Rath. This covers the modern apartment and more traditional family house which contrast with the grim and stark prison interiors. And exteriors range from a wintry wood to sun-baked Africa and then to the forbidding walls of the prisons. The settings and costumes, by Georg von Kieserite and Minka Hasse respectively, are excellent. The sound is fine and at times very atmospheric. And all of this is edited into a complex tapestry between past and present by Dagmar Hirtz. The now veteran composer Nicolas Economou, (recently working with Koreeda Hirokazu) produces an effective score, at times minimal, occasionally more forceful.

The film has been restored and was screened from a DCP. It seemed from memory a reasonable transfer and it was a pleasure to see this again in a cinema after a wait of many years.

It is one of the films directed by Margarethe von Trotta in the Independent Cinema Office retrospective programme. This is titled ‘The Personal is Political’. This is partly accurate as von Trotta, as in other films, is concerned to bring out how personal relationships feed into political issues. But it is also true that in this film, as in most of her other films, the political both determines and limits the personal. This indeed is where the film leaves us with a stark and complex scene that speaks volumes about the sisters and the future of Juliane and Jan.

The film runs 106 minutes in colour and with English sub-titles. The latter on this digital version are reasonable but in the traditional white-on-background; so occasionally, in lighter scenes, you have to focus carefully. A small challenge to what is, for me, probably the finest film made by Margarethe von Trotta. And she has turned out a number of really fine film including Rosa Luxembourg (1986, featuring Barbara Sukowa].

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Women filmmakers at the 2019 Berlinale

Posted by keith1942 on February 6, 2019

The Berlinale, Berlin’s International Film Festival, opens this coming Thursday, February 7th. The Festival is a vast terrain with a wide selection of contemporary films from all over world cinema. The key films are often landmark titles and the Festival Awards are rightly prized trophies. But the Festival also offers opportunities to visit fascinating aspects of cinema history. The Retrospectives, organised by the Deutsche Kinematic, are singular filmic events. Last year we enjoyed a return to Weimar Cinema in an impressive and rewarding programme. And the presentations, of film in both celluloid and digital formats, were also really well done. And the silent titles enjoyed live and skilful musical accompaniments.

This year the Retrospective moves forward three decades to celebrate the contributions of women film-makers to German cinema.

“The Retrospective of the 69th Berlin International Film Festival takes as its subject women film-makers between 1968 and 1999. The programme encompasses 26 narrative and documentary features from the former East and West Germany, as well as German films after re-unification in 1990. In addition, the Retrospective will show some 20 shorter films on their own, or as lead-ins to the features. What the film-makers and their protagonists have in common is an interest in exploring their own environment, and the search for their own cinematic idiom.

In West Germany, this development was embedded in the 1968 student movement, and closely linked to the new women’s movement and the New German Cinema wave. In East Germany, by contrast, all films were made within the state-controlled studio system. That studio, DEFA, gave a few women a chance to direct as early as the 1950s, however they were mainly assigned to children’s films. Towards the end of the 1960s, everyday life in the socialist country became the focus of East Germany’s women directors. “

The length of the period covered means that this is likely to be a series of snapshots. One of the best known directors, Margarethe von Trotta, has only a single title, The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit (1981). This I though a welcome presentations, a film that I have not seen for a considerable period [though it currently has a limited release in Britain courtesy of the ICO) but which I remember finding powerful and stimulating.

Other well known film-makers are also featured.

“Helma Sanders-Brahms – Her early films engage critically with the themes of labour, migration, and the situation of women in West Germany. Under the Pavement Lies the Strand / Unter dem Pflaster ist der Strand (1975, Federal Republic of Germany / Bundesrepublik Deutschland) was a central film for the German women’s movement and for the student movement, as well as for the director’s own emergence as an explicitly feminist film-maker.” (Wikipedia)

But, for me, the bulk of the titles, are unknown and promise to offer an exciting exploration of German film. There has always been a limited selection of German films circulating in Britain, but in recent years hardly any cross over the channel or the territories barriers.

There will be films from four women film-makers working in the German Democratic Republic / Deutsche Demokratische Republik. I have seen only a small proportion of the films produced in the GDR. And I cannot recollect seeing a film directed by a woman. So this will fill an unfortunate gap in my film knowledge.

And there are other titles from the FGR or contemporary Germany. From the FGR in 1984,

The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press / Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse.

Our organization will create a human being whom we can shape and manipulate according to our needs. Dorian Gray: young, rich and handsome. We will make him, seduce him and break him.

Director and writer: Ulrike Ottinge.” (Details on IMDB).

As well as the features and documentaries there are a number of short film, more also from the GDR. And there is animation work. So it promises to be great cinematic week.

Added to this are the regular Berlinale Classics. There are six titles, five of which I welcome seeing again and one, for me, completely new; Ung flukt (The Wayward Girl), dir: Edith Carlmar, Norway 1959. They are all digital restorations. Certainly the digital versions I saw last year were all of good quality. Moreover, several of these are in 4K versions, a quality rarely seen in Britain.

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Rosa Luxembourg / Die Geduld der Rosa Luxemburg, Germany 1986

Posted by keith1942 on January 22, 2019

This is one of four films directed by Margarethe von Trotta being distributed in Britain by the Independent Cinema Office. The programme is titled ‘The Personal is Political – the films of Margarethe von Trotta’. The standpoint presented in this title has some justification. In her films von Trotta most frequently focuses on a female protagonist and presents their life [or part of it] by intertwining personal experiences with social and political events. However, I would counter to this a stance of ‘the political is personal’. I do this because whilst the films portray personal relationships the stories von Trotta uses are [to varying degrees] taken from historical events. In this way the social contradictions which made these stories prominent enough to justify a commercial film structure both the public and personal events involving the characters. This film, both a biography and a celebration of one of the outstanding revolutionaries of the early C20th, seems to me clearly to demonstrate such a relationship between the political and the personal.

The film, written and directed by von Trotta, has a complex and non-linear structure. On its release critics noted [and often complained about] the difficulties of making sense of such a narrative. I think this was more noted outside of Germany. One audience member at a recent screening was seeing the film for a second time and remarked that he followed it more easily this time as he had greater knowledge of the context and background of the film’s story. Indeed when the film was released in Britain,

“The Press handout implicitly recognises this by including a helpful chronology of Rosa’s life and substantial historical background.” (Pam Cook’s review in the Monthly Film Bulletin, August 1986).

For the same reason I set out here the chronology of the film.

It opens in 1916 with Rosa in a German prison.

Following the opening credits the film cuts a Polish prison in Warsaw in 1906.

There follows a flashback showing Rosa, and her lover Leo, arriving in Poland a year earlier; with the 1905 Revolution in Russia under way.

The film cuts to 1899 as Leo joins Rosa in Berlin.

We then witness a New Year celebration at the dawn of 1900 by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands – SPD).

The film returns to 1906, still in Berlin, and Rosa’s relationship with the leaders of the SPD and her personal relationship with Leo.

By 1907 Rosa has moved to the left of many of the SPD leaders, including her former mentor Karl Kautsky. And her relationship with Leo changes after she learns of his affair with another communist woman.

By 1913 Rosa has become a leader of a ‘left fraction’ in the SPD. Opposing ‘revolution’ to ‘reformism’. She has begun a relationship with, Kostja, the son of her friend Clara Zetkin. And she meets Paul Levi, a lawyer and to become another lover. She is tried by the German Authorities for ‘inflammatory behaviour’ in her opposition to the coming European war.

In 1914 she is working with Karl Liebknecht, another anti-imperialist war revolutionary. But the SPD supports the 1914 war by voting credits in the German parliament.

In 1916 Rosa is arrested and imprisoned. On release she and Liebknecht found The Spartacist League (Spartakusbund).

By 1916 she is back in prison where she remains till the end of the war. We see her visited by friends, in particular Liebknecht’s partner Sonya.

On release in 1918 she and Liebknecht, supported by Leo and others, return to revolutionary activity. Revolutionary actions by the German working class force an end to the war and the declaration of a republic with the SPD taking power. At this point the film interweaves it fictionalised portrayal [in colour] with black and white archive film from the period.

An uprising, led by the Spartacists, [who at the start of 1919 became the Communist Party of Germany / Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands] is suppressed by the Government using right-wing volunteer militia, the Freikorps, [proto-fascist organisation]. Rosa and Liebknecht are murdered. Rosa body is thrown in a Berlin canal.

The film ends though Rosa ‘s body was later recovered and given a proper burial.

This cutting back and forth can be followed but the actual period and characters have to be either recognised or surmised. It is only after several scenes in which she appears that Clara Zetkin is identified by her full name. Other characters like Karl Kautsky or August Bebel are identified by name and the dialogue gives a sense of their relevance to the events. But organisations such as the Second International, which Rosa attends at one point, probably need the viewer to already understand where they fit in events and political contest.

Rosa Luxemburg in 1918

An important point to note about the narrative is what of Rosa’s life and activism is left out. Thus the narrative presents Rosa when she is already involved in the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (Socjaldemokracja Królestwa Polskiego i Litwy – both under Czarist rule) and the SPD. We only see her early years in two brief flashbacks, one with her studying a flower with her mother, and the other teaching reading to her nanny. The cause of her lifelong limp [a hip ailment in childhood] is unexplained as is the point that the family was Jewish. The latter occasioned epithets directed at her by enemies just as was the case with Leon Trotsky. One important facet that is missing is that Rosa became active in revolutionary politics whilst she was till a school student. And her sojourn and studies in Zurich is only noted in the dialogue. Another important point that is missing is her marriage [of convenience] in 1897 in order to obtain German citizenship. And whilst the film identifies her relationships with Leo and Kostja, that with Paul Levi has to be surmised from his behaviour. The oddest omission for me was almost no reference to Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. The former is named once by Paul Levi. The latter do not get a single mention. Given both the common standpoints on imperialist wart and the impact of the Russian revolution on The Spartacist League, this is a serious omission. Rosa actually met Lenin in London in 1907 at a Russian Social Democrats Party Conference. Whilst this is mentioned in the dialogue, neither the title nor an explanation is provided.

This serious overlooking of people and influences of central importance to Rosa seems to be part of a deliberate playing down of the Marxism which was her political ;philosophy. In her struggles with the SPD there are references to her emphasis on the importance of organisation and of the General Strike; also of the need for the proletarians to control and push forward the Party leadership. But the content of this, set out noticeably in her 1900 article, ‘Reform or Revolution’ is missing. From 1913 the emphasis shifts to her opposition to the war. This is presented as capitalist but also militarist, so that the way that Rosa, along with Lenin, held to the prescriptions of Marx and Engels is not clearly set out. This seemed to me to result from a strategy of emphasizing Rosa Luxembourg as a feminist icon and pioneer. This is clearly problematic and the film has to recognise [in a comment to Clara Zetkin] that Rosa saw the struggle around gender as subordinate to that of class. But the emphasis in the plotting and characters continually emphasises Rosa’ work and friendship with other women, especially Clara and Sonja. Within the SPD her opponents are all men. Whilst Leon, Karl and Paul are all men who support her political standpoint; Leo is partially discredited by his affair and Karl by the film presenting his initiating of the Spartacist uprising as opportunist. The latter misrepresents both the events and Rosa’s standpoint. We do see French socialist, Jean Jaurès, making an anti-war speech but he is not actually identified. And, as noted, the most important revolutionary figure of the period, Lenin, is absent.

Pam Cook, in a very good review in the Monthly Film Bulletin, comments on the relationship between the political and personal;

“In effect, von Trotta has fictionalised Rosa Luxemburg, creating from real events of her life an idealised figure. This is particularly evident in the many sequences devoted to Rosa’s brilliantly evocative public speeches, which stand as spectacular ‘performances’ in their own right, almost like set-pieces in a musical bio-pic; and in the way Rosa’s actual words, painstakingly culled from her many letters and other writings, are abstracted from context and translated into intimate scenes with her cat, her woman friends, her family or her lovers.”

But Pam Cook also notes how the contradictions in this film and in its subject ‘strain’ the fictionalising process. This is apparent if we compare the film with a more conventional biopic of a revolutionary, Warren Beatty’s’ John Reed in ‘Reds’ (1981). The witnesses in that film are unidentified and their political viewpoint abstracted. In a scene where John Reed explains his politics to Louise Bryant he fails to finish a single complete sentence as several hours are transformed with ellipses into about five minutes, And, at the film’s end, this revolutionary internationalist is depicted as another homesick ‘American’. Rose Luxemburg avoids such failures. And the complexities of what is essentially an ‘art film’ treatment of the political bio-pic renders the narrative tapestry reflexive in a way that encourages viewers to notice those contradictions emerging in the fissures of the text. So the non-linear narrative produces a complex story telling. Whilst the political standpoints in the film are limited they are explicit, something that is fairly rare in commercial cinema.

One of the aspects that the film presents is the contradiction between the relative bourgeois life style of the leadership in the SPD and the proletarian situation of the mass of their members. In fact we only see proletarians in the prisons, as an audience in the public meetings where Rosa and others speechify, and at the end in the combat as the Spartacists battle the representatives of the German state. The film does not explicitly draw attention to the gulf that exists, but it is evident in the mise en scêne. The household of Bebel and Kautsky appear fairly affluent and they both have servants. The apartments that are used by Rosa and Leo and by Rosa and Kostja are also very comfortably furnished and ample in size. Rosa too has a maid and, later, a secretary. But the latter is called to participate in a political meeting by Rosa. This is an aspect of the film that demonstrates the importance of the contributions of the craft colleagues of von Trotta.

Music by Nicolas Economou

Cinematography by Franz Rath

Film Editing by Dagmar Hirtz, Galip Iyitanir

Set Decoration by Stepan Exner, Bernd Lepel

Costume Design by Monika Hasse

Make-up Department Bernd-Rüdiger Knoll

plus their colleagues working with them.

The film recreates the period with what seems to be great accuracy and detail. Sets range from the dark forbidding prisons to the comfortable households of the leaders to public halls where events are held and, at the film’s end, both the streets and the offices where the Spartacist organise and fight.

The cinematography is excellent. Varying from the noirish gloom of the prions to the bright, colourful public spectacles and, finally, the dark and dank resting place of Rosa’s corpse.

The visual detail in the film is impressive. There is one fine long shot of Rosa framed and dwarfed by the monumental Reichstag building as she leaves after the the SPD has betrayed the revolution and voted in the Reichstag for war credits. But the shots are not only dramatic but also ironic and even slightly humorous. The pre-credit sequence shows Rosa walking back and forth in a German prison with snow on the ground. She is first followed and then accompanied by a blackbird, who hops along in the snow.

The brutality and sadism of the reactionary state forces is clearly presented in the film. At the start we watch as women revolutionaries are distraught at the execution of male revolutionaries by the Polish military. This is followed by a mock execution of Rosa before an interrogation. At the film’s climax Liebknecht and Rosa are taken by the Freikorps, knocked unconscious and then shot. The reactionary hatred displayed to the revolutionaries by the right-wing militia and their supporters is clear.

In the closing sequences the film uses archive film to presents the revolutionary ferment that forced an end to the German war actions and then set the scene for a German revolution, which unfortunately failed. This is is well cut into the fictionalised representation and bring an elan to the drama. It is slightly unfortunate that this archive film has been reframed to fit the film ‘s own ratio, 1.66:1.

Rosa Luxemburg is a flawed and in some ways contradictory film. It shows the limitations of von Trotta political approach to film drama but also the way that the stories that she tells break free from some of the limitations of her approach. But I do not know of nay other filmic treatment of Luxemburg. She is both influential and frequently portrayed in literature, drama, painting, and music. It is a real credit that von Trotta has essayed this treatment. The screenings organised by the Independent Cinema Office included a short introduction by von Trotta herself. She explained that a fellow German film-maker and radical, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, originally planned a film treatment on Luxemburg and wrote a script. This was titled ‘Rosa L’ and was, apparently, found by his body after his death. One source suggests that he wanted Romy Schneider to play Rosa, another Jane Fonda; either suggesting a very different approach for that in von Trotta’s film. Von Trotta herself worked out her own script after a lengthy study of the sources on Luxemburg.

The British release [though limited] is opportune. 1919 sees the centenary of the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. A memorial demonstration was held in Berlin on the anniversary, January 14th. Luxemburg remains an iconic presence in revolutionary history. Her writings are still published and republished. Her ‘Reform or Revolution’ is major text; read it with the capitalist crisis of 208 in min d, and see its relevance. Both Lenin and Trotsky, both of whom disagreed with some of her work, were full of praise for her.

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Films by Margarethe von Trotta

Posted by keith1942 on January 10, 2019

This is a package of films from the important German film-maker distributed round Britain at the start of 2019 by the Independent Cinema Office with support from the Goethe-Institut London and German Screen Studies Network. This is a welcome initiative. Some of the titles, such as Rosa Luxembourg (1986), are rarely seen. Some, like The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit (1981), have not been available theatrically for years. The films are circulated in new digital versions; but German digital transfer are usually very good. What I find less happy is the title of the programme, ‘the personal is political’. This seems to me back-to-front; von Trotta’s films actually suggest that the ‘political is personal’.

 

 

In The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum / Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (1975, co-directed with Volker Schlöndorf) the titular character becomes a victim of tabloid journalism. Whilst this results from a personal relationship what fuels her persecution by the media and the authorities is her supposed political connections. The focus of the film these reactionary aspects of West German culture.

 

 

One can see this in von Trotta’s first solo feature, The Second Awakening of Christa Klages / Das zweite Erwachen der Christa Klages (1978). The protagonist Christa is a young mother involved in running a free nursery. It is the problems of the nursery that lead to her actions, some of these being criminal. The film certainly addresses motherhood but this is in a social context. At one point in the film Christa and her friend hide out in Portugal where they work in an agricultural commune. It is this type of political and social context that dominates the film.

 

 

The political and social context is just as prominent tin her next film, one of my favourites, The German Sisters. Dramatizing in fictional form aspects of the famous/infamous Red Army Faction. One sister, Juliane, is a feminist journalist; the other, Marianne, is a member of a revolutionary faction committed to armed action. Their relationship, the travails and disputes that arise, all follow from their political rather than their personal positions. The film indeed dramatizes female relationships and [again] motherhood but this is within the political discourses in which the two sisters reside.

 

 

The fourth film is Rosa Luxemburg. This is a biopic of one of the outstanding revolutionaries of the early twentieth century. Luxemburg is a feminist icon and she fought against the patriarchal tendencies within the revolutionary movement. But her driving force was the class struggle and proletarian revolution. The way that she utilised bourgeois marriage is indicative of a stance that prioritises the political over the personal. The characterisation of Luxemburg emphasises the revolutionary standpoint, that the political informs the personal rather than the other way round. Luxembourg prioritised the class struggle over the struggle round gender. Whereas ‘the personal is political’ often tends to prioritise gender over class.

I am looking forward to revisiting these fine films by von Trotta. Apart from her undoubted cinematic and narrative skills this film director is unusual [in contrast to the majority of male and female film directors] in skilfully integrating fine film-making and story telling with the central political issues of our time.

Rosa Luxemburg is screening at the Hyde Park Picture House on January 15th.

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Under the Bridge / Unter Brücken, Germany 1945 – 1949.

Posted by keith1942 on July 31, 2017

This film, on 35mm and in black and white, was part of a programme ‘Watchful Dreamer: The Subversive Melancholia of Helmut Käutner’ at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017. He started out as an actor in the German film industry in 1932 and progressed to writing and directing in 1939. He made nine films during the war years and continued filmmaking into the 1960s and work for television into the 1970s. This film, like two others, only received a proper release after the end of the war, hence the release years indicated. The Catalogue entry by Olaf Möller comments on one of the other titles, the 1944/45 Great Freedom No. 7 / Grosse Freieit Nr.7,  that

“Kautner created a world-weary melodrama whose doom-laden mood and non-conformist spirit were too much for the reigning powers…”

The problems with that film may have affected Under the Bridge, Helmut directed and  co-scripted both films. This later film eschews reference to the war, at a time when the Allies’ bombing campaigns were starting to devastate the German homeland. Möller notes that this film was,

“a timeless tale about river barge sailors inside the city as well as the surrounding areas…”

Despite being filmed in Berlin and its environs this is not the recognisable Germany of this late war period:

“for one thing, Käutner shot places in the capital (among others the old Jannowitzbrücke and the Schlütersteg-Brücke) that were bombed soon after … creating documents of a Berlin now gone. Also, he registered a few ruins from the first bombing in ’44. i.e. some of the earliest signs of the city’s coming annihilation.”

The film seems as unaware of the war as the German population appeared to be of the Nazi death camps.

Recalling earlier films set on barges and canals we meet the two owners-cum-sailors of a barge ‘Liselotte’, Hendrik Feldkamp (Carl Raddatz) and Willy (Gustav Knuth). Hendrik is the successful womaniser on their trips ashore, as we see in the opening sequence of the film. Whilst Willy is shyer and lacking the same confidence. For much of the time the pair work the barge, usually part of a convoy pulled along canals and rivers by a tug. Their port visits provide the opportunity for pleasure, drinking and women. Hendrik and Willy also discuss buying a diesel engine for the barge which would widen their scope and their income. But it would also involve a substantial loan and eight years of paying this off. [The film, of course, is unaware of the irony involved in taking on this debt and the repayment period].

The events that disrupt this steady and relatively pleasant and harmonious life is fairly conventional. One night, passing under one of the many bridges that line the route and give the film its title, Hendrik spies a lone woman apparently planning to leap from a bridge into the river. This is Anna Altmann (Hannelore Schroth). Anna has come from Silesia to work in Berlin and is all alone in the world.

Hendrik and Anna

Predictably both men are taken with this young and attractive woman. We see the development on the barge, later in Berlin when she returns to her flat in the city. This meeting leads to disruption in the working friendship of Hendrik and Willy. As the audience expect, Hendrik is the more successful initially, assisted by his skilful accordion playing and singing. But he is also an apparently a less reliable prospect, with his ever roaming eye for woman. Matters come to partial head when the pair take a longer trip to Rotterdam and on they return to the capital city. Anna’s final choice is predictable but deftly handled.

There are some effective e sequences on the barge. The barge guard is Vera, a goose, who [unfortunately] suffers the fate of providing a celebratory dinner. Later Anna provides curtain for the cabin portholes, which also provide a cover for the home-made pin-ups on the walls. The barge also possesses living quarters in the main cabin and [on a lesser scale] in the bows. Where either of the friends is housed reflects on the progress of the ménage a trois.

There are also equally effective treatments during the land based courtships. Hendrik and Willy discover, to the chagrin’ that at one point Anna resorted to nude modelling for painter. Both surreptitiously visit an art gallery to observe nude paintings , a sequence of humour and delight.

Willy and Anna

Käutner scripted the film with Walter Ulbrich from a manuscript by Leo de Laforgue. The characters are well drawn and the three main actors, who occupy most of the screen time, are excellent. And the visual presentation of their story is finely done. The cinematography by Igor Oberberg has some fine location filming in Berlin. What also stands out are the shots of the rivers, canals and surrounding countryside as the barge wends its way. And the editing by Wolfgang Wehrum is precise and includes some notable montages, especially of the bridges that the barge passes under as it enters the cities of Potsdam and Berlin.

Möller refers to Neo-realism in his comments. Whilst the film does have some of the poetry of the earlier film by Jean Vigo it does, at the same time, capture the actual workings of the bargees life and work.

Il Cinema Ritrovato programme had seven titles directed by Käutner. I saw two of the other, also on 35mm prints. There was Ludwig 1. Glanz und ende eines Königs (Mad Emperor: Ludwig 11, 1955), in colour. The film treated Ludwig’s life and career in segments, with only a hint of a gay subtest: this treatment is overshadowed by the later version by Luchino Visconti. And there was A Glass of Water (Das Glas Wasser, 1960), also in colour and set in the England of Queen Anne. This was a very 1960s film and reminded me  a little of Moll Flanders (1975). However, I heard good reports of other titles and Käutner would look like a filmmaker who would repay seeking out.

 

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The Tin Drum / Die Blechtrommel, West Germany 1979

Posted by keith1942 on April 17, 2015

tin_drum20

Gunther Grass died in the last week. A towering figure in recent world literature, his most famous work also became a famous film. I have read the novel twice: the second time to prepare for a screening of the film version [in 35mm] as part of a series at York City Screen of European Classic on Film. The other three screenings were The Lady With a Dog from Chekhov: La Bête Humaine from Emile Zola: and That Obscure Object of Desire from Pierre Louys’ The Woman and the Puppet. The Tin Drum was the fourth and final screening. On the way to York that morning I read [as usual] the Saturday Guardian: the best section being the Review. That issue opened with a long article by Salmon Rushdie on adapting literature into film: and he ended by singling out the film version of the Günther Grass novel as a fine example of this art. One could list other adaptation of the same calibre and, as I suggest below, the adaptation has limitations: still it is a great example of the craft and a worthy addition to memorials to the novelist.

Günther Grass’s book, first published in 1959, is reckoned to be the finest novel published in Germany since the end of World War II. [Both the Penguin and Vintage editions are translated by Ralph Manheim]. It is also a key work, dramatising Germany’s pre-occupation with its past, especially the period of the Third Reich: the extreme nationalism, the wars and the European Holocaust. These remain potent themes, witness the success of the recent fictional work, The Reader / Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink.

Grass’s story is focused on Oskar, a unique individual who stopped growing at the age of three years, and refuses to grow to adult size. He is also gifted with an unusually piercing scream, which punctuates the story of his life. And he plays with, to great effect, the instrument in the title. Oskar narrates his tale from a mental institution, where he has been committed, in the 1950s.

The narration is unusual. Oskar switches from first to third person and back again repeatedly. The book is structured around flashbacks, so the reader constantly returns to Oskar in the then present. The style of the book is far from the naturalism of Zola. The narrative is full of bizarre events, presented alongside detailed descriptions of actual places and of re-created historical actions. Oskar commences his tale in 1899 with the meeting of his grandparents: then takes us through the birth of his mother, her marriage and his own conception in 1924. Thus most of Oskar’s childhood and adulthood are passed under the shadow of the rise of Fascism and of the Third Reich.

Grass sets the novel in his hometown of Danzig. This is a potent spot in modern German history. Danzig was part of Prussia and therefore acceded to the new German Empire in 1871. After World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the creation of a Polish State dramatically moved the borders in this region. Much of Prussia was ceded to Poland. In addition East Prussia was separated from the main mass of Germany. As an important and strategic port for the area Danzig was declared a ‘Free City’ under the protection of the League of Nations, [in January 1920]. It had its own administration, currency and so on. Poland, which surrounded this small territory, had a military presence on the Westerplatte and a Polish Post Office. According to the census taken in 1934, Danzig had 383,955 inhabitants, 96 % Germans, 3 % Poles, Kashubians; 60 % Lutherans, 35 % Catholics. Predictably the separation from the ‘German fatherland’ caused outrage among German–speakers in Danzig and in Germany itself.

In the 1930s the National Socialist Party increased its representation in the city. There was also an increasing emigration from the small Jewish population. In November 1938 the city introduced the Nuremberg Race Laws. In 1939 Hitler demanded a ‘korridor’ between Germany and its province of East Prussia. In August the Danzig Gauleiter staged a coup d’etat. Then on September 1st a German warship opened fire on the Westerplatte. The invasion of Poland and the European war had commenced. The Polish Post Office became a battleground. Danzig was annexed to the Third Reich.

Early in 1945 the Red Army conquered the city which it placed under Polish administration. This was followed by large-scale migration from the city by German-speakers. After the war the port remained in Poland and became known as Gdansk. As the latter city it was to have further dynamic and influential conflicts.

THE FILMMAKERS.

Volker Schlöndorff was an appropriate person to transpose the novel to the screen. There had been several earlier attempts, which came to nought. Schlöndorff had already directed several screen adaptations from literature. His first film, which was very well received, was Der Junge Törless (Young Torless, 1966, from the novel by Robert Musil). The film was set in the turn-of-the-century German boarding school, critically examining its cruelties. [This has been a theme in a number of German films: there are parallels with Michael Haneke’s recent The White Ribbon / Das Weise Band Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte, 2009].

Schlöndorff was equally apt because he was a member of a group which was to become the New German Cinema. Junger Deutcher Film was inaugurated in 1962 with the issuing of the Oberhausen Manifesto. This was a group of 26 writers and filmmakers who demanded freedom from industry conventions and commercial strictures. They were able to make their way at this time through government grants, support by a new Film Institute in Berlin, and with financial support by German Television. The group included [besides Schlöndorff], Edgar Reich and Jean-Marie Straub. To these were added directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Hertzog and Wim Wenders. The films had disparate styles but the common bond was a critical approach, both to the question of Germany’s past, and to the ‘bourgeois complacency’ of contemporary Germany. This did not always translate into success at the domestic box office, but many of the films were critical successes and fared well on the International Art Circuit.

Schlöndorff Young Torless fitted in with this critical approach, as the film could be read as a metaphorical indictment of German complicity in the crimes of Nazism. His wife, Margarethe von Trotta, who started as an actress, also took up film direction. Her Die Bleierne Zeit (The German Sisters, 1979) examined the impact of such movements as the Red Army Faction or Baader-Meinhoff Group.

The Tin Drum / Die Blechtrommel, 1979. West Germany / France.

Bioskop Films Artemis Films & Argos Films.

Director: Volker Schlöndorff. Screenplay: Jean Claude Carrière [familiar from Bunuel’s films], Volker Schlöndorff, Franz Seit, and Günter Grass [who is credited with dialogue].

Cinematography: Igor Luther. Editor: Suzanne Baron. Production Design: Nicos Perakis. Music Maurice Jarre. The film is in colour and European widescreen. Running time 142 minutes. German with English subtitles.

Cast: Mario Adorf – Alfred Matzerath. Angela Winkler – Agnes Matzerath. Katharina Thalbach – Maria Matzerath. David Bennent – Oskar Matzerath. Daniel Olbrychski – Jan Bronski. Tina Engel – Anna Koljaiczek (young). Berta Drews – Anna Koljaiczek (old). Charles Aznavour – Sigismund Markus. Roland Teubner – Joseph Koljaiczek. Tadeusz Kunikowski – Uncle Vinzenz. Andréa Ferréol – Lina Greff. Heinz Bennent – Greff. Ilse Pagé – Gretchen Scheffler. Werner Rehm – Scheffler. Käte Jaenicke – Mother Truczinski. Helmut Brasch – Old Heilandt.

The Tin Drum was one of the most financially successful German films of the 1970s. It won the 1979 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and was jointly awarded the 1979 Palme d’Or at Cannes, along with Apocalypse Now.

Predictably the film both compresses and shortens the novel, which itself ran to 580 pages. For example, the opening sequence concerning Oskar’s grandparents leaves out quite a lot of writing and plot. Similarly, in the course of the novel certain sequences are eliminated. But many of the most powerful, like the Nazi rally in Danzig or the battle at the Polish Post Office, remain.

The film also alters the narrative voice. We still have Oskar’s commentary, but the flashback structure has been replaced with a linear form. More drastically, the film ends in 1945 as Oskar and his family joined the evacuation of the German-speaking citizens. This leaves out Part Three of the novel, about 150 pages. The written story carries on until 1954 and contains ironic developments in Oskar life, which comment obliquely on post-war Germany.

Another important change stems from the casting. Oskar is played by the 12 year old David Bennent, [brilliantly]. However, in the novel Grass insistently tells the reader that Oskar develops: though he remains in a child size body.

The film did suffer some attempted censorship in the USA. This was mainly due to objections to the explicit sex scenes, and [I suspect] the outrage was exacerbated by the child-like central protagonist.

The-Tin-Drum-1979

About his preference for screen adaptations Schlöndorff has said:

“A great part of my experience in life is reading. A filmmaker translates an experience into cinema. And I consider it legitimate to translate my reading experience into film to try to recall what moved me.”

And regarding the narrative stance of the film:

“It will not always work to stay in Oskar’s skin. Just as he speaks sometimes in the first person and sometimes, alienatingly child-like, in the third, so must the film narrative at times be quite subjective and at times show his shock from outside.”

[Quoted in Nazi-Retro Film How German Narrative Cinema Remembers the Past by Robert C. Reimer and Carol J. Reimer, 1992].

POSTSCRIPT.

Re-watching these films and listening to the discussion caused me to think again about the films and the categories of ‘film adaptation’ suggested by Geoffrey Wagner. Transposition – Commentary – Analogy. These categories were used each week as an analytical tool in relating the individual films to a more general ‘Literature on Film approach’.

Transposition, ‘in which a novel is given directly on the screen with a minimum of apparent interference.’

Commentary, ‘where an original is taken and with purposively or inadvertently altered in some respect … when there has been a different intention on the part of the filmmaker, rather than infidelity or outright violence.’

Analogy, ‘which must represent a fairly considerable departure for the sake of making another work of art.’

 

Lady with the Dog / Dama s Sobachkoi, 19159 – The stultifying social atmosphere in Chekhov’s writings is a symptom of the decadent Tsarist Society. Perhaps there is a subtle reading to be made of the film’s relevance to 1960s Russia. It was then part of a moribund Soviet Union, which had lost the revolutionary political and cultural impulse of earlier Bolshevik periods. One can imagine apparatchiks aping the ennui of Dimitry’s acquaintances.

La Bête Humaine, 1938 – Zola’s novel provides a scathing critique of the political culture of 1860s France. This is most notable in the final careering train with its troops off to the Franco-Prussian war; [none of the three versions that I have seen actually uses Zola’s amazing descriptive and symbolic conclusion]. That was a war that caused the political establishment to collapse. This is clearly a strand in the Renoir adaptation, but it is less overt than in the novel. In the following year, in 1939, Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu [The Rules of the Game] does provide a quite ruthless demolition of ruling class values.

So both the above films could be seen as using the novel’s narrative to provide a commentary on their own times.

That Obscure Object of Desire / Cet Obscur Objet du Désir 1977  – Louy’s novel seems to satirise C19th bourgeois sexual mores, through the stereotypes of Spanish machismo. These were popular stereotypes in literature. Bunuel’s adaptation retains that satire, but crosses it with themes of social and political violence, social ritual, voyeurism and tourism. Thus the film appears to draw analogies between the novel and contemporary society, but also between social, political and cultural contradictions. Thus I find the film much more subversive than the original book, [and two earlier film versions – a silent ‘porn’ version from 192 and the famous 1939 adaptation with Marlene Dietrich, The Devil is a Woman]. Also, whilst the film’s staging bears the recognisable signs of the 1970s, thematically it seems to me a powerful parable for the new C21st.

To a degree Renoir’s film version is an analogy. Undoubtedly, Buñuel’s work falls under analogy: in his case for the sake of art and of turning art upside down.

The Tin Drum – Before the discussion I remarked on how revisiting the book and novel had sharpened my sense of how the film curtails the narrative of the novel. It seems that Schlöndorff closes down Grass’s critique to a focus on the Third Reich and Nazism. This possibly makes the film more pointed, but it produces a slightly restricted ‘commentary’. The emphasis is on Germany’s ‘past’: an approach that ties in with the New German Cinema approach. The film is very much ‘adaptation’, for which Rushdie rightly praises it. The ‘commentary’ aspect relates to the ‘commentary’ in Grass’ novel, but in a restricted manner.

So the major problem with the film’s adaptation is that Grass critique of the post-Third Reich Germany is largely missing. This is a crucial theme across Grass’s work, culminating in his unfashionable opposition to the form taken for reunification. Moreover, Grass, especially in later works, addresses the problems of the ‘Soviet Liberation’ and the issue of the DDR. But in its treatment of the fascist period the film remains one of the most biting and powerful dissections of that period of German history. I still find The Tin Drum more politically powerful than recent parallel films like The Reader (2008) or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008).

I have recently seen the film adaptation of The Book Thief, a novel that I enjoyed immensely and which seems to be influence by Grass’s use of fantasy alongside realism. This later film just emphasises the quality of the Schlondorf film. If, as Rushdie argues, The Tin Drum is a great example of how to translate literature to film then The Book Thief is a text book example of how not to do so.

After the screenings, as at every session, we had a 20 to 25 minute questions and comments by the audience, composed of about 65 people. The final comment was by a young women who had attended all the screening and who usually had something interesting to say. I thanked everyone and said I hoped they had enjoyed the film and the morning. She sharply questioned my use of the word ‘enjoy’ and remarked on the grimness of the film. She was, of course, quite right. But I think she also agreed that enjoyment is only one aspect of cinema: there are other equally rewarding responses, and The Tin Drum feeds into a number of these.

Taken from the notes prepared for the York screening. Quotes by Grass in Nazi-Retro Film How German Narrative Cinema Remembers the Past by Robert C. Reimer and Carol J. Reimer, 1992. Adaptive categories in Geoffrey Wagner, The Novel and the Cinema, 1975.

Posted in German film, History on film, Literature on Film | Leave a Comment »

Goya – or the Hard Way to Enlightenment

Posted by keith1942 on April 11, 2011

German Democratic Republic, 1971. In colour, 70mm, 136 minutes.

Directed by Konrad Wolf.

Screened in the WideScreen Weekend of the Bradford International Festival, 2011. 

For me this was the screening of the Festival. A beautifully shot film in 65mm, which has a fascinating structure to its story and an adventurous approach to form. Its virtues surpassed the difficulties many of us experienced from a print in German with French subtitles. The film’s plot crosses over in a number of ways with Milos Forman’s more recent Goya’s Ghost, but it is much more of an essay in political art cinema.

The film opens in the 1790s with Goya already an established painter, with a firm reputation with the royal court and the aristocracy. The impact of the French Revolution is leading to a growth of liberal and republican ideals. Goya is shown to have sympathy with these but he is also careful to avoid being identified with radicals. The powerful religious Inquisition suppresses any and all political, social and personal radicalism. Both Goya’s famous prints and paintings get close attention from this censorious body. However, 1808 sees the French liberation / occupation of Spain and the development of guerrilla warfare by the Spanish people. After 1815 the monarchy is restored in the person of Ferdinand VII. Reaction, including the Inquisition returns. In the 1920s, already partially retired, Goya moves to France.

The film mixes the social situations of the time, Goya’s public persona as a famous artist, and his rather chaotic personal life. This includes a severe illness in the early 1890s, which left him partially blind for a period and deaf for the rest of his life [the latter is underplayed]. His sexual life includes a wife and two children and a long-running affair with the Duchess of Alba.

Apparently the production team of the film reproduced 300 of Goya’s famous paintings and prints. The focus in the film is on a select few works, which are key achievements in his output.

The 1790s is the period of his famous portraits, and in particular his large canvas, The family of Charles 1V. At the same time he is involved in producing a series of prints sold as sets of etchings Los Caprichos. These are bizarre, menacing and even morbid, and are one of the works that incurred the displeasure of the Inquisition.

His relationship with the Duchess of Alba leads to the famous Naked Maja. It also includes a lovely scene where the Duchess visits his studio and thoughtfully drapes her mantilla over the face of a statue of the Virgin Mary.

The period of war naturally focuses on the two great works, The Second of May, 1808 and The Third of May, 1808. Revolutionary fervour and brutal suppression are captured in these great paintings. And there are the further series of etchings The Disasters of War, dark, violent and intensely grotesque.

The paintings and the settings are both beautifully lit and framed, and the sets and costumes are done in great style. But it is the filmic style, which gives the greatest potency. Wolf uses frequnet montage, both visual and aural. In both cases the techniques are in line with the ideas of 1920 Soviet directors and also the post-silent Sound Manifesto. The clash of images and sounds dramatises both the emotional life of Goya [and his deafness], but also the impact of great and powerful social events on him and his society.

Intriguingly the films theme would seem to offer allegorical comments on three different situations. Released in 1971 the tale of Goya’s life under the royal autocracy provides a parallel to the dictatorship in Spain of Franco and his fascist regime. However, the work of the Inquisition, which includes a public ‘show trial’ of repentant sinners, would seem to equally comment on the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Whilst the paranoia induced in the film by the surveillance of the Inquisition would seem to be an oblique comment on the DDR itself. How much of this was fully intentional can be debated.

Unfortunately the film, which was originally 166 minutes, was cut by the director himself. This seems to have been because the length and unconventional style found in the film detracted from its commercial potential. Given the discontinuities in the film’s style it was not always clear where cuts had been made. However, in some instances there are abrupt ellipsis, and I felt the reduction in running time was not altogether well done.

However, the film remains a great spectacle, a fascinating portrait, and a stimulating social essay.

Since 70mm screening are now so rare readers may like to know that there is a widescreen DVD version, and with English subtitles. But it won’t be quite the same in that format.

 

 

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