Review: Transit, (Germany / France 2018)

This is the latest release by the German film-maker Christian Petzold. He has already had three of his fifteen credits released in Britain; all fine movies. The last, Phoenix  (2014), was a powerful and stylish drama set in Berlin and exploring changes of identity in a story full of noir tropes. This new title has parallels with the earlier one; the question of acquiring an identity, the displacement of war and the impact of a radical new situation for the main characters.

The title refers ‘transit zone’ where people wait for the official papers to leave; they are displaced and where

“here’s no fixed home. Home is basically homelessness.” (Christian Petzold in the Press Notes).

The story comes from a novel by Anna Seghers from 1944. The settings are Paris and then Marseilles. This adaptation treats period ambiguously so we seem neither in the past nor the  present. This can challenge the audience but emphasizes the  situation of the protagonists:

“They’re borderline phantoms, between life and death, yesterday and tomorrow.” (Petzold).

There are a number of key characters but at the centre is a man seeking transit papers  Georg  (Franz Rogowski)  and the wife of a writer Marie (Paula Beer). So there is a love story in the plot but this has to try and work itself out in a world where war has produced chaos, where police are a threat and officialdom is both remote and overwhelmed.

The idea of ‘transit’ has raised parallels with both Casablanca (1942) and Port of ShadowsLe quai des brumes (1938). And there is a reflexive narration which Petzold himself has compared to Barry Lyndon (1975). In both its plot and narration it also reminded me of The Sheltering Sky (1990) with two young US characters adrift in North Africa..

There was a single presentation at the Picture House which was well attended. However, it seems no other cinema in the area has screened the title. The production is distributed by Curzon/Artificial Eye who rely as much on online as theatrical. And the title has not been helped in Sight & Sound where it received a normal review in September 2019 whereas a title I felt was inferior achieved the two-page spread offered to only three releases  an issue. My colleague on ‘The Case for Global Film‘ rates it one of the best new movies of the year and I absolutely agree. Hopefully it may return for another screening at the Picture House; I should certainly like to enjoy it a second time.

Scalarama 2019

The September Festival celebrating all forms of moving image exhibition returns to Leeds. The city is one of the areas which has an extensive and varied selection of titles; in both theatrical and non-theatrical settings. And the programme offers classics, less-known films, documentaries and animation.

‘Animated in Leeds’ on September 7th at Chapel FM Arts Centre offers a selection of some of the short films made by this pioneering Women’s Collective. The Leeds Animation Workshop has high standards of technical accomplishments and the productions invariably address important social issues.

Cutter’s Way (1981) is what is known as a neo-noir. It features many of the characteristics of the classic film noir. There is the world of chaos into which the protagonist is drawn by the siren call of, here, a mystery rather than a mysterious woman. The  film is in colour but offers many sequences shot in chiaroscuro. And, intriguingly, one could argue that the film offers both a seeker and a victim hero; both caught up in triangular relationships. It screens at the HEART in Headingley on September 9th.

A series of events highlight the film work of Bob Fosse, ‘Fosse in film’. Fosse started out as  performer and dancer and took up stage choreography. He then worked on several Hollywood productions and progressed to direction. He directed five features between 1963 (Sweet Charity) and 1983 (Star). The screenings in the Festival are of this three most famous and successful films.

Cabaret (1972) Thu 12 September at Wardrobe, ST. PETER’S SQUARE      One of the great film musicals and the best film version of Christopher Isherwood’s memoir

Lenny (1974) Sat 14 September @ 10:30 pm. Hyde Park Picture House.       Dustin Hoffman is perfectly cast as the scabrous and subversive stand-up comic Lenny Bruce. The film is beautifully shot in black and white by Bruce Surtees. [Unfortunately the Sunday screening is gone!]

All That Jazz (1979) with post film discussion on Bob Fosse and Power & Exploitation     Thu 26 September @ 6:30 pm – 9:00 pm                         Northern School of Contemporary Dance, Riley Theatre, 98 Chapeltown Road. Fosse uses his own life and experiences to present the story of a Broadway director, choreographer and film director (Roy Scheider). The parts are better than the whole with some brilliantly staged sequences.

To celebrate Babylon’s recent U.S. release, and commemorate the Windrush generation, we’re holding a special screening of Franco Rosso’s film, followed by a DJ set …

Babylon(1980) Tue 17 September @ 8:00 pm – 10:00 pm   Square Chapel Arts Centre, 10 Square Road.                                                                                 A seminal film on black culture set in the 1980s. Directed by an Italian film-maker who had already made a documentary about the infamous ‘Mangrove 9’ case. The eye of an outsider brings a distinct sensibility to a world that British cinema had yet to address in a meaningful way.

A series of short films on life and art and music of Palestinians in Palestine and exile today: as their struggle for National Liberation continues.

Films include Colours of Resistance about art and music of Palestinians trying to retain their identity with a country that is being deprived of its right to exist, Palestine Underground showing the music and hip-hop scene in Ramallah and Made  in Palestine.                                                       Tue 24 September @ 8:00 pm – 9:30 pm  LS-Ten Skatepark, Unit 1 Kitson Rd, Leeds.

If you want more information or to check our other parts of the programme visit the Leeds Web Pages.

If you are away from Leeds there maybe Scalarama where you are going, so check out the National Web Pages.

Never Look Away / Werk ohne Autor, Germany, Italy, USA, Czech republic 2019.

Young Kurt with Elizabeth and ‘degenerate art’

This new title had two screenings at the Picture House. I managed the second which had a small but respectable audience.  They all stayed to the end, which was 188 minutes later. In fact the film did not seem three hours to me as the characters and the stories were absorbing.

I write ‘stories’ as there are two narrative strands in the film and I thought one weakness was that they never seemed to completely mesh. The English language title refers to the personal and family drama strand. This starts in 1937 as we see the young Kurt [Cai Cohrs) with his Aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) as they follow a guided tour of the Nazi exhibition of ‘degenerate art’. Kurt already has ambitions to be  a painter. But the emphasis is on the personal. Elizabeth admonishes the young Kurt to

‘never look away’ because ‘everything that is true holds beauty in it’.

But she is soon lost and becomes a victim of the Nazi policies of sterilization and extermination of people deemed physically and mentally ‘unfit’.

After the war Kurt and his family find themselves in the zone liberated by the Soviet armies and then the German Democratic Republic. Kurt goes to art school where the official style is ‘Socialist realism’. He meets and falls in love with another student Elizabeth, ‘Ellie’ (Paula Beer). Her father Carl (Sebastian Koch) is a gynecologist and the audience [but not Kurt or Ellie] know that he has a suspect past from the era of the Third Reich. As this starts to catch up with him he leaves for the West. Now married Kurt and Ellie follow just before the erection of the infamous ‘Wall’.

This latter part of the film is closer to the German title, which translates as ‘Without an Author’. This refers to the film using some of the life story of an actual German artist, Gerhard Richter, whose paintings figure in the film. Kurt enrolls at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, at the time a centre of avant-garde art. Here we see another thinly veiled character from real life, the artist  Joseph Beuys. Now Kurt finds an artistic voice  and critical acclaim.

Adult Kurt with a Socialist Realist portrait and an experimental canvas

Less focused is family life, but Kurt and Ellie have children and happiness. The fate of her father Carl is not revealed but there is a hint that nemesis is closing in.

The cast work well, Tom Schilling and Paula Beer are reasonably good.  Sebastian Koch is excellent with a real sense of malevolence. The stand-out performance is Saskia Rosendahl, though she is only seen in the early part of the film.

The production is extremely well done. The design, cinematography and sound all work well to produce a convincing creation of the places and times. And there are both subtle and less subtle references in the style that draw the characters and their experiences together. The music does this at times, but other sequences have a rather obvious accompaniment, sometimes with a Wagnerian tone. I suspect the film-makers were not confident that all the key moments of development totally worked.

This contributes to the sense of a division in the film. And the personal drama, especially the romantic, is rather conventional in presentation. Whereas the artistic is less so. But I think both maintain the interest of the viewer.

The film  is written and directed  by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck who was responsible for the very fine The Lives of Others  / Das Leben der Anderen (2006). This film lacks the complexity of the earlier title. The treatment of both the German Democratic Republic and of the later Art Academy rely on rather simple motifs.   I think the director’s craft suffered from a trip to the mainstream and a completely forgettable The Tourist (2010). However, this production is vastly superior to that and, in a year where the new releases  of real quality are sparse, stands out. It is in  colour, full widescreen and has English sub-titles;  definitely a movie to be seen in a cinema.

Performance (UK 1970)

Saturday July 27th 5.30 p.m.

This is both a cult movie and a seminal British film. Chas, (James Fox) is an East End gang member who collects protection money. When his methods result in a killing he goes on the run and hides out in Notting Hill Gate basement, where, upstairs there is a ménage à trois. Chas becomes involved in the hedonistic activities at the house and, in particular with an ex-rock musician Turner (Mick Jagger).

The film became infamous for its melee of explicit violence, sex and drug-taking. The 1970s also became infamous for the clash between adventurous film-making and conservative values, embodied in another British film The Devils (1971) and the campaign against it by an organisation called ‘The Festival of Light’.

This film was produced by Warner Brothers, who also were involved in the equally controversial A Clockwork Orange (1971). The studio executives did not know how to manage the film and enforced cuts in the finished property. The British Board of Film Censorship [as it then was] made more cuts. On release it received an ‘X certificate’ whilst in the USA it received an ‘R’ rating. It received similar certificates in other territories and often additional cuts. The USA release suffered the further indignity of having some cockney dialogue being dubbed [re-voiced]; a fate also experienced by the radically different Kes (1969).

Two people received director credits. Donald Cammell, a bona fide maverick, who wrote the screenplay and was also associate producer. He was born in Edinburgh in the ‘Outlook Tower’ later home for a ‘Camera Obscura’; how apt. Cammell started out as a painter, took up script-writing and then Performance. This is his most famous and successful film; later works have a similar combination of the exotic and the erotic, but not the acclaim.

His fellow director was Nicolas Roeg. He was born in London; and also appropriately nearly opposite the old Marylebone Film Studio, used at one point by Hammer Films. He started out as a cinematographer and indeed shot this film. He went onto direct several successful and highly praised films, including Don’t Look Now (1973), screened in a digital version here last week. He had an unconventional style of film photography. One critic, Steve Rose, remarked that his films

“shatter reality into a thousand pieces” .

His film work, as in this title, is always memorable.

The film runs 105 minutes in colour and black and white, and in the European widescreen ratio. This screening presents the restoration by the BFI from 2004 in 35mm.

The background to the film and its handling by the industry and censors will be illuminated in the Q&A that follows with Sanford Lieberson, the producer on the film. His other work includes a number of documentaries including the very fine ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime (1975). He will be accompanied by Jay Glennie who has produced a book; ‘Performance: 50th Anniversary Book’.

Half a year’s viewing

‘An Elephant Sitting Still’

The following are the films that I most enjoyed and was most impressed by in the first six months of the year.

An Elephant Sitting Still / Da xiang xi di er zuo (China, 2018)

This is a four hour epic in ‘miserabilism’ but a powerful representation of life on the lowest rungs of society. It was the first and only feature directed by Bo Hu.

Ash Is Purest White / Jiang hu er nü (China, France, Japan 2018)

Another fine movie from director Zhangke Jia; he follows his muse Tao Zhao across regions and periods in the manner of the preceding Mountains May Depart / Shan he gu ren (China, France, Japan 2015, not seen in Leeds].

Happy as Lazzaro / Lazzaro felice (Italy, Switzerland, France. Germany 2018)

A ‘holy fool’ is found first in the countryside then in the run-down urban setting. Mixing myth and contemporary exploitation in a fascinating parable.

Rosie (Eire 2018)

This is a powerful drama taken from real life. The screening was also an event in which participants in the film talked about the work.

‘Rosie’

3 Faces / Se rokh (Iran 2018)

Film-maker Jafar Panahi produces another exploration of Iranian culture in typical quirky fashion.

And one archive film,

Rosa Luxemburg (West Germany, Czechoslovakia 1986)

Part of the programme of films directed by Margarethe von Trotta. Whilst the political representation is limited Barbara Sukowa is excellent as the revolutionary heroine.

Sunset / Napszállta (Hungary. France, 2018)

Sunday July 14th at 2.30 p.m.

This is the new film from director László Nemes. His previous film was Son of Saul / Saul fia (Hungary, 2015). This new film also enjoys the fine production work of many of the same team from the earlier film: music László Melis, cinematography Mátyás Erdély, Film Editing Matthieu Taponier and production design by László Rajk. And once again the film is screening at the Picture House in its original format of 35mm.

Son of Saul was a very subjective style narrative and the new film takes a similar approach. But is seems that there are even more ambiguities in the plotting this time. The film opens in Budapest in 1913 when a young woman comes to the city and encounters mysterious and threatening situations. The pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian empire offers a rich palette for such a story; witness the earlier Sunshine (1999) directed by István Szabó.

The film runs for 142 minutes in colour, widescreen with Hungarian and German dialogue with English subtitles. It promises to be less downbeat than the earlier film but likely will need close attention as the story unfolds. The effort should be repaid by the visual pleasure in the screening. The 35mm cinematography relies on random  silver halide grains in the stock that reflect the light and give excellent contrast. Digital copies of 35mm film transfer this to uniform pixels and only rarely reproduce the particular characteristics of film stock. So, the illustrative still at the top of this post does not really give a sense of what we should enjoy viewing.

Sans Soleil/Sunless, France 1983

Friday July 5th at 6.15 p.m.

This film was written, directed and edited by Chris Marker, who also provided the music. If you have not seen a Chris Marker film before it might help to write that two of his friends and cinematic collaborators were Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda. Associated with the nouvelle vague they were actually part of a distinct group of film-maker known as the ‘left-bank group’. Their films were more experimental, more political and more distinctive than the  famous ‘new wave’ films. Marker himself is known for works described as ‘essay films’ and this title is a good example of that approach. Not exactly documentary but addressing the actual world.  Wikipedia defines [informal] written essays as characterised by:

“the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humour, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme,”

Much of this will be found in the Marker film. As well as his personal involvement in so much of the production of the film Marker also appears in slightly fictionalised versions of himself.

The film’s written component is a series of letters both partly read with comments by a female character. The letters are from a cameraman visiting a variety of places: Japan, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Iceland, Paris, and San Francisco. The last includes locations used in Alfred Hitchcock’s highly regarded Vertigo (1958), a film that has pre-occupied Marker for years. I actually did the same homage to the film with a French guide and Marker fan.

The original French version of Sans Soleil opens with the following quotation by Jean Racine

“L’éloignement des pays répare en quelque sorte la trop grande proximité des temps.”

(The distance between the countries compensates somewhat for the excessive closeness of the times.)

The English version of the film opens with lines by T. S. Eliot:

“Because I know that time is always time

And place is always and only place”…

The screening today is of the English Language version. Marker shot the film on a 16mm camera in colour and standard European widescreen. There are film footage and stills in colour and black and white academy and some special effects. The film-makers quoted are given in the end credits as is the English language narrator, Alexandra Stewart. Marker recorded the soundtrack in asynchronous manner, thus the sound does not always match the imagery. So this is ‘montage’ in the full sense of the word. The film has been copied onto 35mm so we will enjoy a ‘reel’ film.

Sans Soleil is preceded by a short five minute film, also on 35mm and an introduction. The short film is Black by Anouk De Clercq (2015, Belgium). The double bill is the opening event in a weekend of screenings organised by the Pavilion, ‘Artists’ Moving Image Network Screening Weekend’. There are a series of screenings by artists working on film and moving images, including digital and 16mm projections. There are more events at the Hyde Park Picture House but also at a venue in New Briggate, number 42, sited between the entrances to the Grand Theatre and the Assembly Rooms [pre-booking is advised].

The artists include those based in Yorkshire and from farther afield; Alain Resnais has a title screening. This is an ambitious project which promises to be varied, fascinating and rewarding.

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Postscript: I apologise; like Rick I was misinformed. Last night we enjoyed the original French language version of Sans Soleil with the letters and comments read by Florence Delay.

Black turned out to be a cinematic meditation on Marker’s use of black leader early in his film. And this 35mm print is a unique artefact, so we were fortunate to see it.

A Season in France/Une Saison en France (France, 2017)

Friday 28th June at 6.15 p.m. and Wednesday 3rd July at 6.15 p.m.

This is the new film by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, a filmmaker from Chad who has lived and partially worked in France since 1982. His new film deals with the important issue of refugees and migrants and dramatizes the experience of an African widower and his children who  are forced to flee to France from Central African Republic.

Several of Haroun’s earlier films have screened at the Picture house. There was Bye Bye Africa (1999), an unconventional docu-drama in which a slightly fictionalized Haroun visits and films his native country of Chad. It is an ironic and occasionally bitter record of Neo-colonialism in Africa. His next film Abouna (France, Chad 2002) follows two young boys who seek their father across Chad, including in the desert regions. A powerful drama which was beautifully filmed by Abraham Haile Biru, it won the prize for cinematography at The Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou or FESPACO). This Festival is a major forum for African film.

Daratt  (which translates as ‘Dry Season’, was funded by France, Belgium, Chad and Austria in 2006). The film follows a young boy who has suffered in the Civil War [2005 to 2010] but who finds a new life in a bakery. A Screaming Man  / Un homme qui crie  (France, Belgium, Chad 2010)was once again set in the period of the Civil War as a father and son struggle to cope with the adversities of their situation.  Grigris (Chad, France, Belgium 2013) only received a single screening at the London Film Festival but no British-wide distribution.

Haroun’s film dramatize the ill effects of Colonialism and Neo-colonialism in Africa, especially that region once termed ‘Francophone’. His stories also frequently revolve around fathers and sons, making for powerful and emotional dramas. And he has a fine sense of visual presentation and has worked with really talented craft teams. Now his new film is receiving the release [though limited] his work deserves. But the two screenings at the Picture House are likely to be rare opportunities to see the movie in its proper theatrical setting.

If you want a preview:

Red Joan, Britain 2018

Sun 2nd June 3.00 p.m., Wed 5th June 11.00am [BYOBaby] and 1.20pm

This is the story of a fictional character, Joan Stanley, who in the 1940s passed secret information to the Soviet Union. However, it and the novel from which it is adapted, are based on the life of a actual historical character, Melita Norwood. Norwood was exposed publicly in 1999 when information from an ex-Soviet agent and now-defector revealed her past activities.

The film version presents the story in a fairly conventional-style narrative [warning – plot spoilers]. The film opens with the arrest of Joan (Judi Dench) by Special Branch in 1999. Then we view a series of interrogations which are intercut with flashbacks by Joan to the 1930s and 1940s. The interrogations fill out the action in 1999 where information has led to the exposure of a senior Foreign Office official as well as Joan. The flashbacks presents Joan’s personal life and then her spy activities. At Cambridge ‘Young Joan’ (Sophie Cookson) meets glamorous European émigré Sonya Galich (Teresa Srbova) and cousin Leo Galich (Tom Hughes). Both are communist activists.

Continue reading

Two Fine Art Movies

Screening daily from Friday May 17th till Thursday May 23rd.

This Friday the new film directed by Claire Denis, High Life (2018), opens at the Picture House. Claire Denis is undoubtedly one of the really talented and interesting film-makers working in contemporary cinema. In this title she has presented her first film in an English language form; thankfully she has done a better job than a number of her fellow European film-makers. This is a science fiction story that opens on an odd box-like space ship heading far away towards a black hole. Inside we find Monte (Robert Pattinson) whose only companion is a very young child. A series of flashbacks fill in the events prior to this; Monte’s companions have fallen foul of the internal conflicts among the crew. We learn how the baby came to be on the space ship and the unusual social rules that produced the situation. Stylistically the film recalls the Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky, especially his films Solaris (1971) and Stalker (1979). The plot at times appears to be lifted from the pages of J. G. Ballard and is both violent and a little disturbing: the BBFC have given it an 18 Certificate. The cast, which includes Juliet Binoche, is good. The production, including special effects, is well done. And once more Denis shows her ability to explore social and personal contradictions. The June issue of Sight & Sound has an interview with Claire Denis.

Screening on Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday afternoon this coming week

An equally fine film-maker, Zhangke Jia, has directed Ash Is Purest White / Jiang hu er nü (2018). The film covers several decades in the life of Qiao (Tao Zhao). Much of the film is set in Shanxi province in the north of China but at one point Qiao travels south to the Three Gorges in Hubei province [seen in earlier Jia films]. Qiao is involved with a “jianghu” gangster (Fan Liao). The effects of this relationship and the mob violence affect her life but throughout she remains cool and self-possessed. Tao Zhao is impressive as Qiao. She acts a muse for Zhangke Jia, having appeared in his earlier films including the very fine Mountains May Depart / Shan he gu ren (2015). This film has the same epic quality and it happily screens in Leeds, a city that missed out on the earlier title. The production values in all departments are excellent and both the action and the settings fully engage. The language in this title is Mandarin with English sub-titles.

The movie comments on recent and contemporary China; I thought one point referred back to the coup by capitalist-roaders following the death of Mao Zedong. Tony Rayns has an article in the May issue of Sight & Sound which includes comments by the director and explains some of the distinctive Chinese aspects, including the title rendered in English as ‘Sons and Daughters of the Jiangsu, a word appropriated by the underworld and originally referring to “the parallel world in which martial arts fictions is set.”