Talking Pictures

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Archive for the ‘German film’ Category

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.

 

Advertisements

Posted in German film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

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.

 

 

Posted in Festivals, German film | Leave a Comment »