Category Archives: Germany

Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989)

Director: Wim Wenders

This certainly feels more like a “Wim Wenders film”—it has that somewhat ponderous quality his films seem to incline to—than Room 666, in which he basically had to work with what his interviewees gave him; certainly it’s rather literally “by” Wenders, in that he took the project on with the intention of doing something entirely by himself (barring a few bits shot by Robby Müller). The subject of said film was suggested by someone at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris who said “why not make a film about fashion”… and Wenders is upfront about his lack of enthusiasm for that subject, so he decided to focus on one particular figure, designer Yohji Yamamoto, and consider the parallels between his art and Wenders’ art. Now, the latter’s desire to work without a crew kind of dictated the nature of the film that would result, a fairly literal mix of film and video, which actually makes this an interesting follow-up to Room 666 in some respects; Wenders’ DVD commentary notes that his 35mm Eyemo film camera was only good for shooting very short rolls of film and was so noisy he couldn’t record live sound, so he had to use a Hi-8 video camera most of the time. This actually results in some kind of complex images. e.g. video footage filmed in 35mm off a monitor with Wenders holding up a Hi-8 player in front of it showing something else, or a rehearsal of one of Yohji’s fashion shows filmed in 35mm but the lower half of the frame contains two different video monitors, all shot simultaneously rather than optically composited. The problem, though, is the sound; conceding that the Hi-8 camera was the only way Wenders had to get live sound without dragging a professional sound recorder along, the sound of Yohji’s interviews is as rough as hell, not helped by his own hesitancy in English. That’s actually a lot more distancing than the visual tomfoolery, and combined with the rather slow pace of things it makes the film more than a little trying. Mind you, it was a useful follow-up to Room 666 in some respects; that film was about the future of cinema and the visual image, this one is Wenders taking certain steps into that future himself and considering the merits of the image in its various forms (he says something about feeling like the stuff he shot on video was insubstantial, and only became real after he transferred it to film and could physically cut it). Undeniably difficult viewing, or listening at any rate, though not without some pleasures.

Room 666 (1982)

Director: Wim Wenders

In which Wim Wenders visits the 1982 Cannes Film Festival and sits an assortment of his fellow attendees down in a hotel room with a 16mm camera, a tape recorder, a TV playing quietly in the background, and a question about the future (or otherwise) of cinema for them to pontificate on. Which they do at varying lengths; Jean-Luc Godard goes on for about 10 minutes, Mike De Leon for just a few seconds. Of course, from our perspective, Wenders’ own film is an artifact of the past, as probably inevitably happens to things like this which consciously try to predict the future of something; years later, our primary interest (should we care at all about such things) is mainly in seeing who got what right (the film’s fascination with the extent to which television might displace cinema is particularly amusing these days). Indeed, the film hardened into history within less than a fortnight of its first screening, when one of Wenders’ interviewees, R.W. Fassbinder, permanently checked out of the world with the help of some prescription and non-prescription drugs… and quite a few of his other interviewees have either passed on as well or else been kind of quiet over the years. Werner Herzog always offers good value, of course, kind of predicting the Internet as we now know it, while Michelangelo Antonioni, who would’ve been much the oldest filmmaker here, is, interestingly, perhaps the one most comfortable with the idea of technological change and having to adjust, quite interested in working with video (which he’d already done by this point). Plus Monte Hellman’s lament about the stuff he tapes off TV then never gets around to watching will no doubt resonate with many viewers even now (he said, looking with horror at his own monstrous backlog). And Steven Spielberg’s grumping about filmmaking only getting more expensive has kind of proven to be the case, not that he’s done much to help the situation with some of his own films or anything… In some ways, though, it’s the last interviewee, Yilmaz Guney, who’s the most interesting, not only because his interview is the only time Wenders varies his camera set-up in the whole film, but because he couldn’t actually appear on camera at all; at the time he was still in hiding from the Turkish government, so Wenders presents a recording of him instead. It’s actually a nice reminder in a way that pondering the future of cinema is an interesting thought experiment, but it’s not necessarily the most important thing in the world to contemplate…

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

Director: Robert Wiene

Is there anything really left to say about Caligari after the decades of analysis it’s had foisted upon it and becoming hardened into a cliché of film studies? I don’t know. I watched it tonight (Saturday night) for the first time in probably over a decade (I recall borrowing it on DVD from the TAFE library, which must’ve been 2003), although I’ve “seen” it probably a few times at local goth clubs and similar nights (e.g. this minimal wave thing I was at just a week or so ago) when it’s been the visual accompaniment… I don’t count those, though, only the actual sit-down screenings like tonight. It’s one of those films, though, that I’ve seen so many times and have become so familiar with over the years—indeed, was familiar with just from reading about it well before I first saw it around, when, 1993 I think—that I haven’t forgotten it in the way I forget the details of quite a number of films I go years without seeing again. As such, revisiting it tonight mainly served to point up some details I’d never really picked up on before…

* The guy who plays Alan kind of looks like Matt Smith (a detail I obviously wouldn’t have appreciated before a few years ago);

* There’s something… homoerotic about Caligari’s joy at acquiring Cesare for his work. Or am i just reading it that way?

* This film really benefits from tinting to designate day/night distinctions. Maybe not as necessary as it is for Nosferatu to make sense at times, but still useful.

* And I never really paid any attention to Franzis’ fellow inmate in the last part of the story before, the one he actually relates the story to… that bit in the final scene where Franzis points Cesare out to him in horror, and the other man just has this look on his face like “fuck this guy, what a lunatic” and gets the hell away from him. Almost a moment of levity that I only picked up on tonight for some reason.

Also, someone said once that the real problem with the infamous “frame” narrative—allegedly devised by none other than Fritz Lang, who was originally supposed to direct the film, and which was supposed to neuter the intended political subtext of the story by revealing it as a madman’s delusion—actually fails because, really, even without it it’s easy to view Franzis’ story, or at least his own role in it, as a delusion of grandeur. (He does seem to find it awfully easy to assert himself over the authorities and gain access to things a regular private citizen would never get near.) Watching the film tonight made me realise that perspective has some validity; that framing device complicates the film far more than the conventional story of the film’s making suggests.

As for the film itself, it probably seems like more of a museum piece than anything else; the radicalism of its “expressionist” stylings was pretty much a function of its point in history, so it’s probably more tied to 1919-20 than, say, Nosferatu is to 1921-22. And, pretty much since its first release, it’s been the subject of analysis and argument to a degree where I don’t know if it’s still possible to treat it as a living film rather than a historical moment. (Cos it didn’t leave much real progeny, did it? Not in the way The Golem directly influenced the early 30s Hollywood horrors. Cf. Robert Wiene’s own next film, Genuine, which looks more like a parody of what he did in Caligari than a building upon it.) Still, those “expressionist” aspects make for a pretty good focus of attraction even now, of course, there’s still something fascinatingly weird and disturbing about them nearly a hundred years later. If, as I suggested, the film is a cliché of film history, let’s remember things like this become clichés for a reason, and even now there’s something iconic about many parts of the film. Even if certain of the participants disagreed for decades over exactly who was responsible for what, the overall achievement was still pretty remarkable…

Vampyros Lesbos (1971)

Director: Jess Franco

It seemed logical to follow Venus in Furs with another Franco (Manera) film shot in Turkey and also featuring one of the same actors (Dennis Price, who’s rather more prominently featured in this one). it’s a tenuous connection but it makes a damn sight more sense than anything in the film itself. I last watched this about five years ago, and I remember being struck then by just how whacked out and incoherent it was. I mean, I’d seen the film a few times before that so I probably always realised, but I just remember being really hit by it, Five years later, it hasn’t got any more sensible, of course. However, watching it after Venus in Furs as I did tonight (even though it’s nowhere near as strange as VL), perhaps I was a bit more… attuned to it? I don’t know, maybe I’m just becoming attuned to Franco in general, maybe I’ve learned not to worry so much about the plot making sense (the plot, for what it’s worth: woman working for law firm goes to assist mysterious countess with estate she’s inherited from a certain Count Dracula, falls under her lesbian vampiric spell, sense stops being made roughly around this point) and to just accept that, well, this is how Franco tends to operate (“forget it, James, it’s Francotown”). As such, I was in a somewhat more accepting frame of mind towards it, perhaps, opening myself to its basic silliness and having a good perve at Soledad Miranda. Let’s face it: the late Ms “Korda” and her not at all unattractive body do constitute probably the chief attraction of the film. I’ve got no idea how good an actress she was (not sure if that’s even her own voice on the soundtrack, though I suspect not), but she didn’t look too bad at all in the nude, and I’ve no doubt that was what really mattered anyway. As hard to actually recommend as probably any Jess Franco film, obviously, but quite fascinating…

Venus in Furs (1969)

Director: Jess Franco

I’ve accrued a certain—some might call it ridiculous—amount of films lately by the late Jess Franco… indeed, no fewer than three this week, one (Nightmares Come at Night) I bought at a shop yesterday and two that arrived in the mail on Tuesday. Tonight’s viewing was one of the latter (the other was Sadomania, which I’ll get to in due course), which generally seems to considered one of the comparative high points of Franco’s chequered career, produced at a point when said career was really starting to heat up… The Blue Underground DVD has an interesting interview with the man, who makes the intriguing claim that he didn’t set out to make a “surrealistic” film, that he likes surrealism but he was going for a more realistic tone. That’s a fairly remarkable statement given the nature of the piece… it’s about a jazz trumpeter who pulls a body out of the surf on a beach in Istanbul, a young woman’s body; said young woman may have been at a party where he was playing, and he may have seen her being killed there. But then, after he relocates to Rio, she inexplicably reappears in his life, and in the lives of three other particular people… This scenario, as Franco says in the interview, actually grew out of a chat with jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, with the latter describing how the act of playing a solo inspired a sense of unreality and disconnection and feeling emotions and sensations inaccessible and unreal to other people; piss-all to do with the Sacher-Masoch book, whose title was forced upon the film by one of its many and varied co-financiers. Like I said, it’s interesting that Franco said he was aiming at a realistic style, cos the somewhat hazy and not-quite-real overall tone is what the film does best. It’s a bit vague, some things frankly don’t make much sense, and the ending will make you ponder as to its precise meaning, but I actually found myself rather enjoying it while admittedly being somewhat baffled…

Fritz Lang: The Early Works (1919-21)

Director: Fritz Lang

For a long time I thought that, apart from The Spiders, all of Fritz Lang’s pre-Destiny films were considered lost. As such, I was a bit surprised to recently find this was not the case for three of them at least (the other two, his first two films, seem to remain MIA); not only that but you could actually find (kind of shit) copies of them on the Interwebs. Better still, a few months ago Kino put them out on DVD. Let’s take a look…

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The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

Been a while since I last looked at Fassbinder, and since I’m still working on the 1001 Movies list (trying to get more through ones I haven’t seen rather than ones I have like I did last month), this was the one to go for tonight (as I don’t have Fear Eats the Soul, the only RWF film on the list I otherwise haven’t seen). As with most of the other Fassbinders I’ve seen, this is slow stuff. It’s really good stuff, too, it should be said, I can totally understand why it was a hit for Fassbinder back in its time. But oh it’s slow. I complained about this slowness when reviewing Mother Küsters a while back, and I said of that film it was mainly the lead female role that kept me interested; to some extent—although other cast members do good work here too—that’s also true of this film, with Hanna Schygulla as the titular Maria, married to Hermann in the middle of a bombing raid (the period is the immediate post-WW2 moment into the mid-50s or so), with her husband heading off to war immediately thereafter and apparently dying in said conflict. What follows is reconstruction, not just of the country but of Maria Braun as well, rising from a “hostess” at a bar for the American occupiers to the mistress of a returned French-German financier, a strong and fairly controlling woman rich in all the material goods she once had to fight for but, shall we say, somewhat poorer in spirit. The result is melodrama which struck me as somehow being quite extreme but also not underlining its extremity in the way it could’ve done. And it is good, I can see it justifying its place on the 1001 Movies list; the production seems to have been absolutely nightmarish (thanks to money problems, Fassbinder’s drug consumption, and the producer trying to screw him over the rights to the finished film) but ultimately it worked out. But DAMN it’s slow. And two hours of that slowness ultimately meant I wound up not really liking it as much as I wanted to.

The White Ribbon (2009)

Oh FUCK Michael Haneke. Fuck his smug superiority. Fuck his hateful characters and his own hateful moralism. Fuck his vacuous “ambiguity”. Fuck his films. Fuck this film in particular. And fuck his beard.

Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924)

The second half of Die Nibelungen is less of a turnaround than the second half of Ivan the Terrible, but even so it’s still a markedly harder and nastier film; eschewing the magic business and wonderland aspect of the first film (no dragons or things to make you invisible), we get instead a quite terrifying vision of one woman’s madness. Understandably grieving after the murder of her husband Siegfried, Kriemhild (whose own foolishness, as seen in part 1, was arguably the main reason for his death) finds no comfort at the Burgundian court, who will not surrender the killer Hagen, and turns instead to an alliance with Attila the Hun. She has him summon the Burgundians to his court, but balks at her insistence upon killing Hagen there; Attila will not kill a guest who hasn’t wronged him. And then Hagen does so in horrible fashion when he kills the child Kriemhild has borne him. Things only go downhill from there. This is an amazing scene, because you suddenly realise just how psychotic Kriemhild has evidently turned; I got the feeling she gave birth to this child purely so this appalling thing would happen. And as I said, it only gets worse from there; as things progress we come to the realisation that Kriemhild would, probably quite literally, destroy the entire world and everyone/everything therein if it stood between her and Hagen. By the end of proceedings I was kind of shattered. As with Siegfried, I’ve previously only known this in much shorter form, cut to about 90 minutes or less; in this version the carnage is only just beginning where that hacked-up job was already over. I only wish that when Masters of Cinema take their high-definition masters to scale them down to standard-definition that they’d do them in PAL rather than NTSC as they’ve done here (and on a few other releases of theirs lately), but otherwise no complaints about their stellar release; if the production of the film was a nightmare, the end result still stands up as an astounding thing of wonder.

Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924)

For some reason it just seemed right to view this after rewatching Ivan the Terrible. Partly because I actually bought it the day before (and it was amusing to see Ivan cited in the booklet essay excerpted from Lotte Eisner), but also because it’s another two-part historical epic (whether more or less mythological than Ivan I cannot say, even if it does include dwarves and a dragon and magic stuff—though I never realised until tonight there actually is an admittedly very remote historical basis for the legend), and just as Stalin loved at least Ivan part 1, so too was this film beloved of his German counterpart… which wasn’t Fritz Lang’s fault, mind you, we can’t blame the director this time. Hitherto, though, I’ve only seen the two Nibelungen films in shorter form; I think the version I’ve previously seen of this might’ve been the American one from 1925, but I’m not sure, I only know it was about half an hour shorter than the Masters of Cinema disc I’ve just watched. I don’t know all what was “new”, but I was delighted to finally see the brief but lovely animated sequence by Walther Ruttmann. And I still love the dragon, even if it was too unwieldy to actually do much (though the fire-breathing is impressive); I love that it was a full-scale mechanical object, and that you can see just how big the damn thing really was, no trickery… I was particularly struck for some reason by Siegfried himself, though; he may be the (nearly) invincible dragonslayer, call kings his vassals, own the Nibelung treasure and all of that, and yet there’s something awfully naive about him… he’s obviously been fool enough to let it be known that he does have one vulnerable point (his “Siegfried Shoulderblade”?), and clearly doesn’t even remotely suspect Hagen when the latter’s about to spear him. It’s remarkable stuff, slow but rarely draggy, and now I can’t wait to revisit the second part…