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.

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.

The Second Awakening of Christa Klages /Das zweite Erwachen der Christa Klages (West Germany 1978)

6.00p.m. Tuesday March 27th

This is the fourth of the titles from the Independent Cinema Office programme celebrating the films of Margarethe von Trotta. It was her first solo film as director, following on from The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum / Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (1975), already screened at the Picture House. Christa (Tina Engel) is involved in an alternative child care centre. Its problems lead her into crime and then having to go on the run. At one point, she and her friend are found working in an agricultural collective in Portugal. This demonstrates how von Trotta’s film do not just address female relationships, which they do powerfully, but the surrounding social and political contradictions. The film references indirectly the confrontational political discourse of 1970s Germany. As always the characters are fascinating, the film is engrossing and von Trotta and her team’s command of cinematic techniques is impressive.

This is a welcome screening of an important German film when titles from that territory are rare in British exhibition. It would be good to follow up the excellent ICO programme with an example of some other aspects of von Trotta’s film work. The British film Institute have a 35mm print of Sheer Madness / Heller Wahn (1983), though it seems it is quite worn. There is also von Trotta’s career in film acting before she took up direction. She worked several times with the great German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The British Film Institute have a 35mm print of his Gods of the Plague / Götter der Pest (1970), a drama about an ex-prisoner with Margarethe von Trotta in a leading role.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum / Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (West Germany, 1975)

Tuesday February 26th at 6.00 p.m.

This film also caries a sub-title, ‘How violence develops and where it can lead’. This suggests one of the themes that are central to the story. Set in Germany at the time when the activities of the Red Army Faction led to increasing repressive laws and a campaign approaching hysteria in the mainstream media, this film counterposes individual liberties against powerful state and commercial institutions. The titular heroine is caught up in a web of media and state scrutiny. The tragic developments in her world taken her far from her original situation.

The film was both scripted and directed by the then partners, Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta. Both are key members of the New German Cinema of the period. The story is adapted from a novel by Heinrich Böll, himself a radical leader in the German literary world. The novel has also been adapted as a television film, a radio drama and an opera.

The novel opens with a line that Wikipedia quotes:

“The characters and action in this story are purely fictitious. Should the description of certain journalistic practices result in a resemblance to the practices of Bild-Zeitung, such resemblance is neither intentional, nor fortuitous, but unavoidable.” [Bild-Zeitung is a tabloid daily published by Axel Sprinter A.G.].

A similar but somewhat different line appears in the end credits of the film.

This suggests how closely the film criticises actual German media and institutions. Here it follows the novel after Boll himself suffered as a target by the German press. The film follows the plot of the novel in offering an increasing melodramatic story. But it also offers a sensitive portrayal of the young female victim at it’s heart, played with conviction by Angela Winkler.

Offering stories that have a basis in real life and history is a hall mark of the film work of Margarethe von Trotta. This title is one of four in a retrospective programme distributed by the Independent Cinemas Office. The Picture House has already screened the powerful biopic of Rosa Luxemburg. The other two films in the programme are her first solo feature The Second Awakening of Christa Klages / Das zweite Erwachen der Christa Klages (1978) and The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit (1981). The latter is a classic of the New German Cinema. Both will screen at the Picture House, The German Sisters on March 10th.

This title, now transferred to a DCP, runs for 106 minutes and includes English sub-titles.

Rosa Luxemburg, Germany 1986

Tuesday January 15 at 6 p.m.

This is a welcome screening of one of the fine political dramas written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta. Rosa Luxemburg was one of the outstanding revolutionaries of the early C20th. Along with Lenin and the Bolsheviks and the suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst she adhered to the central platform of Marx and Engels’ position on capitalist war. This was the outcome of years of struggle in her native Poland and in the German Social Democratic Party for ‘Revolution’ against ‘reformism’. Her political activity led to numerous spells of imprisonment and finally her murder after the failed Spartacist uprising in 1919.

[see the recent demonstration in her memory].

Red Rosa now has vanished too. (…)

She told the poor what life is about,

And so the rich have rubbed her out.

May she rest in peace. “[Bertolt Brecht].

Von Trotta’s film opens in prison in 1916 and then takes the viewer back to 1906 and a Polish prison. Cutting in time and space between different periods of Rosa’s life and political action the film presents a complex and dramatic biography. Barbara Sukowa, a long-time collaborator with von Trotta gives a compelling characterisation of this committed and steely woman. The film brings out both the importance of Rosa political activity and the rich but demanding personal life she enjoyed.

The production team includes a number of von Trotta’s regular collaborator. Visually this is a tour de force and the team also manages to capture the look and detail of the years before World War I. When the film moves to the later years of the imperialist war and the post-war failed revolution the judicious use of archive footage integrates the personal life with the seismic social events.

This is a engaging and fascinating biopic and treatment of political events that are as relevant today. Rosa’s own ‘Reform or Revolution’ is as an apt a commentary for 2008 as it was for 1900.

Margarethe von Trotta is one of the outstanding German directors of recent decades. Along with fellow women film-makers she will be part of a retrospective at the forthcoming Berlinale. The Independent Cinema Office are distributing this film [in digital versions] with three other titles: The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum / Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (1975): The Second Awakening of Christa Klages / Das zweite Erwachen der Christa Klages: The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit. Let us hope we are able to see these three as well.

Toni Erdmann, Germany, Austria, Romania 2016.

Daily from Friday February 3rd till Thursday February 9th.

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This film won the Best Film and two acting prizes at the European Film Awards 2016. It is also being considered for the Academy Awards and the UK BAFTAS. And it is one of three titles in line for the European Parliament’s Lux Prize.

The film was screened at the closing night of the 2016 Leeds International Film Festival. It is a long film, running for 162 minutes. It also has a very open narrative: the resolution is ambiguous and there are aspects of character and situation that are unexplained and/or unresolved.

“…it’s full of surprises, very warm and touching and frequently hilarious.” (LIFF Catalogue).

It does hold the interest, partly because of the central performances of Peter Simonischek as Winfried alias Toni and Sandra Hüller as his daughter Ines.  The film moves from Germany to Romania and from the comic to the dramatic and back and forth between these modes. Writer and director Maren Ade generally handles this very well though at times I found the opacity of the narrative slightly problematic. Ade includes a strong set of social themes, which I think is one reason for the film’s critical success. Sight & Sound placed it first in its top twenty films of 2016.

Definitely to be seen but prepare for a possible challenging two and half hours.

European audiences could vote for the film for the Lux Prize [including British citizens as we are still in the European Union]. There are two other finalist films; My Life as a Courgette / Ma vie de Courgette (France 2016), an animated film which was late addition to the Leeds International Film Festival programme; and As I Open My Eyes / À peine j’ouvre les yeux (Tunisia, France, Belgium, United Arab Emirates 2015). Unfortunately My Life as a Courgette seems to only have had the LIFF screening so far. And there is no sign of As I Open My Eyes at all. Final straw, the voting ended on January 31st!

 

 

13 Minutes, Germany 2015.

Screening from Friday August 21st.

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This is the new film by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Like his earlier Downfall (2004) this deals with the Third Reich. However, rather than the drama round the leading figures of German fascism and their violent demise this film deals with ordinary Germans, including an oppositional figure. It combines a political thriller [note the title] with the Heimat genre – films that deal with, not quite homeland but, a sense of belonging to a place and its people.

The film opens on the eve of World War II: it is November 1939 and the eve of an important Nazi celebration in Munich. Then a series of flashbacks fill in the characters and background to the events of that night. The film is well produced though not as powerfully destructive as Downfall. There is a strong cast, with Christian Friedel excellent as Georg Elser, the protagonist increasingly horrified by Nazi rule. Katherine Schüttler is Elsa the girl he falls for. And Burghart Klaußner is also strong as the investigator and interrogator Arthur Nebe.

The sense of the village Heimat is strongly drawn. The actions of the police and the SS are [as you might expect] brutal and there are several disturbing sequences in the film. Georg and his developing responses as Nazi rule is cemented occupy the centre of the film. The story is based on actual characters and events and appears to have followed those fairly closely. By focusing on character it handles the issue that the outcome is known. It provides an absorbing two hours and a distinctive take on the operation of the fascist state and experiences within it.

New release – Phoenix

Directed by Christian Petzold, Germany 2014.

Screening from Friday May 15th till Thursday May 21st, every evening.
A Leeds Movie Fans Meetup is happening at the 6pm screening on Monday 18th

Phoenix

Friends will probably be familiar with the director Christian Petzold and star Nina Hoss from their excellent earlier films Yella (2008) and Barbara (2012). Phoenix offers the same absorbing and entertaining play on a familiar genre, the world of noir, here set in post-war Berlin. The Guardian review was rather lukewarm including the suggestion that the plot was implausible. This misses the point of Petzold’s films: they appear naturalistic but they are not primarily realist. Thus, Yella is a ghost story: Barbara is set in East Germany, but it is the DDR from film dramas.

Shortly after the end of the war and the liberation of the concentration camps Nelly returns to Berlin to seek out her previous life and her friends and family. Nina Hoss plays Nelly with real verve and is ably supported by Ronald Zehrfeld (also in Barbara) as Johnny and Nina Kuzendorf as Lena.

The Phoenix in the title is a night-club for troops of the allied occupation. One of the pleasures of the film is its use of the ‘lieder’ from Berlin’s popular musical culture. There is a particular skilful play with songs by Kurt Weill.

The film builds to a gripping and likely unexpected climax. Endings are often a let-down in many contemporary films: Phoenix and its cast deliver with superb aplomb.