Sunday, January 12, 2020

How Turkish German Immigrant Experiences are Shaping Post-Wall German Cinema

How Turkish German Immigrant Experiences are Shaping Post-Wall German Cinema:
Fatih Akin’s Head-On and Thomas Arslan’s A Fine Day

Turkey & Germany
Image Ralph Peters

        November 9th, 2019 commemorates 30 years of the fall of the Berlin Wall that effectively ended the Cold War. After the fall, the unified Germany has become the global powerhouse not only economically but politically and culturally as well, with Berlin as its center once again. With the influx of migrants from the global south flooding into the country, caused by political instability and economic hardship, the face of the German society is very different now, where 15 percent of all German population considers themselves immigrants, than almost 60 years ago when the wall first went up across Berlin. The post-wall German cinema with works by directors like Thomas Arslan and Fatih Akin not only reflect this change, but invigorate the whole German cinema which has been laying stagnant since the New German Cinema of the 70s and 80s.

        The Berlin Wall, built by the German Democratic Republic (GDR, also commonly known as East Germany), to prevent the East Germans fleeing to the West, effectively cut off the flow of manual workers needed for economic revival after the devastation of WWII. West Germany (FRG) then signed a series of bilateral labor recruitment agreements with other countries, including Turkey, on the guest workers program. I thought it would be imperative to examine the history, especially of west Germany, in order to understand how Turkish German experiences are shaping the post-wall German cinema in the new millennium.

Screen Shot 2020-01-12 at 9.23.09 AM
        Two films by two filmmakers I am concentrating on are Fatih Akin’s Gegen die Wand/Head-On and Thomas Arslan’s Der schöne Tag/A Fine Day. I chose Akin and Arslan because they both are second generation Turkish Germans who came of age and start practicing their film craft in the post-wall 1989 Germany, to be precise, Arslan, since 1990 (19 Portraits) and Akin (Sensin- Du bist es), 1995. Even though they both are regarded as practicing hybridity- where they have experienced both Turkish and German cultures and move as freely between them in their craft as possible, they occupy very different areas in German motion-picture industry. I will examine how the representation of Turkish Germans in German cinema evolved through the years and investigate how their culture is contributing to the revival of the German cinema and also reflecting their uneasy relationship within the now-unified Germany. But my inquiry is not a complete picture. Head-On came out in 2004 and A Fine Day was released in 2001. Since then, many things have happened and both Akin and Arslan made other films. These films are snap shots of what was then, early turn of the millennium, and might not reflect what’s currently happening. This inquiry will need a postscript at some point.

        Germany signed labor agreement with Turkey in 1961, the same year the Berlin Wall went up. It was meant to be a guest worker arrangement that soon proved to be neither practical nor profitable for the corporations. Many migrant workers stayed after two-year term and later brought their family in to the country. There are close to 4 million estimated Turks, including ethnic minorities from Turkey, currently living in Germany, a country of 80 million. That’s roughly 5 percent of all population. Germany holds the most concentrated Turkish population outside Turkey. Even though their almost 60 year presence in the country with its government repeatedly trying to join the European Union since the 80s, their immigration status and path to citizenship were in constant limbo until 1999, when the Citizenship Law finally granted the descendants of the first wave of migrant workforce in the 60s and 70s to become citizens, whereas descendants of German blood (having either of German parent)- Russian Germans and Eastern European Germans were automatically granted citizenship. In many ways, the post wall Germany brought out in the open the fragility of its perceived cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism that FRG strove for.

Ali
        The first wave of Turkish German cinema of the 70s and 80s were mainly domestic dramas or about the problems of the guest worker (Gastarbeiter) by directors identified with New German Cinema. Getting their inspiration from French New Wave and British New Wave, New German cinema strove for reflecting politically and artistically meaningful subjects and rebuffed the standard film production process. Its directors such as Alexander Kluge, Harun Faroki, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and many others whose films projected their frustrations over artistic and political stagnation in the midst of the economic miracle on the backs of migrant labor. This “Gastarbeiter cinema” was that of “cinema of duty”, drawing on a social realist tradition and relying on ethnic stereotypes, used empathetic identification to promote social reform and political change. They “mostly involved overdetermined figure of the suffering and entrapped Turkish woman, a key witness in both feminist critiques of patriarchy and liberal arguments for secular democracy.” Examples of this period of Turkish German cinema would be Helma Sanders-Brahms’s Shirin’s Wedding (1976), Yimaz Güney’s Baba (1971) and Hark Bohm’s Yasemin (1988). But it’s impossible not to mention Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), when talking about the immigrant experience in Germany, especially for the fact that Fassbinder’s original intention was to call the film “All Turks are Called Ali”. But instead a Turkish protagonist, wanting to give the starring role to El Hadi ben Salem, a Moroccan immigrant, who was his lover at the time, it became Angst essen seele auf/Fear Eats the Soul. Faithfully borrowing the storyline of a classic Hollywood melodrama, All that Heaven Allows (1955, dir. Douglas Sirk), Fassbinder criticizes postwar racism as a continuation of the Nazi past and also reifying the stranger as an object of orientalist fascination, while playing with traditional gender roles. Emmi (played by Bridget Mira), an elderly cleaning woman, meets a good natured Moroccan guest worker, falls in love. Their improbable love is tested by racism and general social condemnation. There’s also a sexual politics and power dynamics at play. Just like many protagonists of the cinema of duty, Ali can be seen as the prime example of an enlightened victimology. But however invigorating and thought provoking New German Cinema movement appeared to be, its legacy, made up a handful of internationally revered auteurs, was overshadowed by its financial failure and the fact it was mostly ignored domestically in favor of commercially viable albeit mediocre films. With strong influence of private and public television companies and proliferation of home videos, the enthusiastic spirit of New German cinema had died out by mid-80s.

        What came after that was so called “cinema of consensus”, termed by scholar Eric Rentschler. He argued that the vast majority of German film productions in the nineties consisted of light fare meant to please and placate audiences. This trend toward uncomplicated storylines with agreeable resolutions was all the more prominent if one compared German cinema of the nineties with that of the seventies. Rentschler applauded New German Cinema directors who in the seventies “interrogated images of the past in the hope of refining memories and catalysing changes.” By contrast, Rentschler saw contemporary German cinema as lacking “oppositional energies and critical voices.” He mentions exception to this cinema of consensus, “offbeat voices and less reconciled visions” of directors like Tom Tykwer, Fatih Akin, Rosa von Praunheim, Ulrike Ottinger and Harrun Farocki, who made “less visible films with a historical ground, a post-national sensibility and a critical edge.”

Head_On_24
        Fatih Akin is the prime example when considering the shift in filmic sensibilities from “cinema of duty” to the “pleasures of hybridity” Born in Hamburg in 1973 to Turkish immigrant parents, Akin went to University of Fine Arts of Hamburg to study Visual Communications and graduated in 2000. He grew up watching countless films on VHS tapes, both Turkish and Hollywood cinema, professes his love for Scorsese. His debut feature, made while he was still in school, Kurz und schmerzlos (1998) was said to have “represented New German-Turkish Cinema.” His films contributed to a street culture known as Kanak - first used as a derogatory term for Turks and other Arab countries’ immigrants in Germany, later became a normal colloquial term for Turkish Germans and used as self-identification. His kinetic and visceral films, mostly concerning second generation of Turkish immigrants and bonds between immigrants from other countries living in Germany became a commercial and critical success. But it was his fourth feature Gegen die wand/Head-On (2004) that really pushed him to be the face of contemporary German cinema. It won numerous awards, including Golden Bear at Berlin Film Festival, Best Film and Audience Award at European Film Awards and Best Foreign Film at the National Board of Review in 2004, while directly dealing with the theme of the Turkish-German experience, albeit secular. It grossed 14 million USD at the box office. But when we talk about the perception and marketing of Fatih Akin in the German press, his films are treated as still the ones of cultural in-betweenness, not the cultural hybridity and transnationalism. Head-On follows heavily on the tradition of melodrama - explosion of emotions with larger than life characters. It deals with many of the societal taboos - sex, drugs and suicide that are normally seen as opposite in a traditional, family oriented, patriarchal immigrant community. The film is a head on collision with these familial concepts. It’s a fatalistic love story of two suicidal individuals who happen to be of Turkish descent. Cahit is a heavy drinking widower who crashes his car into a wall, and Sibel is a young woman who is trying to get away from her traditional, patriarchal Turkish German family by slitting her wrist. They meet at a mental hospital. Sibel has a proposition - she wants him to marry her in order to free herself from her traditional family. And because he is a Turk, they will consent. For this fake marriage, she will cook and clean the house and they can see other people in the meantime. After her dramatic second suicide attempt, Cahit gives in, and their strange romance starts. It’s Sibel’s presence in Cahit’s life that gives him meaning to continue living. But Cahit kills a man one day to protect the honor of Sibel and goes to jail and Sibel moves to Turkey to start a new life. And It’s her retreat to Turkey that ultimately connects Cahit to his forgotten Turkish roots for the first time.

        In the world of Head-On, Germany in mid-2000s, Hamburg to be exact, there are no Germans treating Cahit or Sibel any different because they are Turkish descent. Cahit doesn’t even speak Turkish very well. Only their names give away their backgrounds. In a funny scene, a German psychologist asks what the meaning of Cahit’s name is. Cahit, completely perplexed by the question, asks back why. The psychologist tells him that all “their” names mean something, something beautiful, deep and profound. Cahit tells the smiling doctor that he is completely nuts. Germany in 2000s is seen as secular, transnational society where Turkish Germans freely question the possibilities of simultaneous transnationalism and rootlessness.

        The Berlin School is perhaps the most significant film movement in Germany since the New German cinema of the 70s. The first wave of film directors it produced were Angela Schanelec, Christian Petzold and Thomas Arslan. First coined by film critic Merten Worthmann in describing Schanelec’s Passing Summer (2001) and later that same year by Rainer Gansera in his review of Arslan’s A Fine Day (2001), the Berlin School is loosely connected group of filmmakers (the second wave of Berlin School directors don’t necessarily come from DFFB) who are countering what mainstream German cinema has become - the cinema of consensus. Working in each other’s projects and constantly in communication through interviews and publications (Revolver - an influential film magazine, founded by the second wave directors of the movement, Christophe Hochäusler and Benjamin Heisenberg, which gave the Berlin School its further legitimization) in the industry. Their films are not easily defined and can’t be readily be explained with few words but the main theme these filmmakers are grappling with in the post-wall Germany is “sehnsucht” (longing)- a longing for Deutschland that never materialized under neoliberal capitalism. The Berlin School, in effect, is ‘reseeing’ Germany without being tied to its war past, without exploiting history. It’s the ‘here and now’ of unified Germany.

A Fine Day
        Thomas Arslan was born in 1962 in the north-central German city of Braunschweig, to Turkish immigrant parents. He went to an elementary school in Turkey, but lived his formative years in Germany, studying German literature and eventually ending up in DFFB: Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin/The German Film and TV Academy Berlin. He has said in interviews that Godard, Bresson and Rossellini’s works have influenced him. At a glance, by virtue of his ethnic background is cast as being concerned with the representation of (ethnic) identity. With nine feature films under his belt, he is best known for his later termed “Berlin Trilogy”- Brothers and Sisters, Dealer and A Fine Day, chronicling the lives of young Turkish Germans in Kreuzberg section of Berlin. I chose A Find Day (2001) because the first two of the trilogy might mark the shift from a ‘cinema of the affected’ to a ‘cinema of hybridity’, but their protagonists continue to “struggle with the similar problems as their predecessors in the Gastarbeiterkino,” whereas in A Fine Day, Deniz, its protagonist, at a glance, doesn’t seem to be afflicted with the immigrant’s blues. In the film, we follow Deniz, a young Turkish German woman living in Kreuzberg, Berlin, as she takes public transportation and walks around the town to meet her friends and family, to go to work, to get around in general. She navigates briskly and confidently around town. The film is devised as one day in the life of… story. She breaks up with her boyfriend, attends her job as a voice-over actress, does her laundry at her mother’s, hangs out with her successful architect sister who is briefly in town, lectures young neighborhood kanaks who whistled at her and starts flirting with a neighbor. Nothing dramatic happens. Everything is almost documentary-like. Yet, with deliberate camera movement, Deniz’s gaze, gestures and seemingly trivial things that are said in conversations, one can detect Deniz’s isolation and loneliness and explains many of the symptoms of integration problems the right wing politicians like to talk about after almost 60 years of assimilation. Even though it is the new millennium and the second or third generation Turkish Germans have gained their rights to their eventual citizenship, their identity, their sense of being German is shaky. Arslan simply demonstrates this fact in a single scene in the beginning of the film where Deniz breaks up with her German boyfriend - she walks into a cafe to meet her boyfriend. during their conversation, which is over the shoulder shot of Deniz, the camera dollies over to the other side of his shoulder, breaking the 180 degree law for coverage and completely changing the audience’s point of view of Deniz. Then the camera reverts back to the original position. Is she as confident as she presents herself? Are we seeing the other side of her? The whole reality is shaken. Her cosmopolitan existence may not be as solid as it presents itself to be. If not Deniz herself is struggling with traditions, it is shown through her Turkish mother’s dilemma - she is widowed a while ago. But to honor the memories of her late husband, she says she would never be in another relationship, even though Deniz reminds her that she is still young and can remarry. She chastises her mom for being old fashioned. Just like many of Arslan’s protagonists, Deniz hardly shows any emotions. There is something definitely missing in her life. Her rootlessness is shown in many different occasions throughout the film. Arslan cleverly suggests through her being an actress, that she can or pretends to be any body- Deniz is told to be a little more emotional when she is in a dubbing session, for Eric Rohmer’s Summer’s Tale, in German. Whatever she is yearning for, she tries to find it in other people. Her gaze is not that of romantic gaze in Rohmer movies. Her gaze is searching kind, trying to find a stability, in a place, in a person, in a culture.

        Like in Akin’s films, there is a solidarity among other immigrants, Deniz flirts with a young man from Spain. She might have some common understanding with the Spaniard, but she doesn’t find what she is looking for in him either. Arslan suggests in the smallest ways the fragility of the secularism for the Turks living in a supposedly cosmopolitan country. The fall of Berlin Wall in 1989 and difficulties of German reunification undermined the public commitment to diversity and gave way to a period of unprecedented rightwing violence that began with attacks on asylum seekers and contract workers. Then the violence of 9/11 and its worldwide reverberation – London and Madrid bombings, changed the dynamics again. I dare say that in a very subtle way, A Fine Day was not only reflective but prophetic in seeing these changes and uncertainties in German society.

        The Berlin School might be well known in festival circuits and film academia, but it shares not only the spirit of the New German Cinema but the burden of being a financial liability. An interview with Christoph Hochäusler reveals as much:

“Of course the implication of the label is sometimes harmful. For example, when it comes to financing a film I've heard many times that they say 'we don't want to finance the Berlin school films'. Because the industry is full of expectations - 'they (the Berlin school films) are too slow' or call it whatever else you can think of when you don't like something. So there is always a problem being labeled like that.”

        Both Akin and Arslan had made several other films since Head-On and A Fine Day. They have moved on from films with Turkish protagonists and expanded their palettes. Akin directed another acclaimed searing melodrama of forgiveness and redemption with Turkish protagonists in The Edge of Heaven (2007) and revenge thriller In the Fade (2017) with the international star Barbara Kreuger in the lead role who is avenging her Kurdish-German husband’s death in neo-nazi attack. Most recently he directed a serial killer movie based on a best selling novel, The Golden Glove (2019). Arslan, like the Berlin School comrades, namely Christian Petzold and Christoph Hochhäusler, delved into genre filmmaking. In the Shadows (2010) is his no nonsense thriller of the highest order, with an Eastern European hitman protagonist operating in Germany. Then he did a Western, Gold (2013), starring Nina Hoss, a Petzold regular, about German prospectors in British Columbia in the 19th century. Recently he did Bright Nights (2017) which was shot in Norway. It is about an Austrian man’s road trip to re-tracing his father’s past who just passed away.

        A lot has happened in the last two decades. Arab Spring, terror attacks, ISIS, Syria and its refugee crisis put a lot of pressure on European Union to reassess their immigration policies. We are living in an unprecedented political, economical, environmental crises world wide. The rise of nationalism in many European countries, including Germany can’t be ignored. The future seems all but uncertain. Germany has undoubtedly benefited from its Turkish immigrants, economically and culturally. But we are living in a different world than 20 years ago. If Akin reflected the pulse of the cosmopolitan spirit of 2000s Germany, Arslan showed the reflection of that fragile cosmopolitanism and somehow predicted its uncertain future.


Sources Consulted

Abel, Marco. The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School. Boydell and Brewer, 2013: 31-78

Baute, Michael, Ekkhard Knrer, Volker Pantenberg, Stefan Pethke and Simon Rothhler. “The Berlin School - A Collage.” Senses of Cinema, Issue 55 (July 2010)
http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/feature-articles/the-berlin-school-%E2%80%93-a-collage-2/

Bennhold, Katrin. “Germany Has Been Unified for 30 Years. Its Identity Still Is Not,” New York Times, November 8, 2019

Gueneli, Berna. Fatih Akin's Cinema and the New Sound of Europe. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2019

Hake, Sabine, and Barbara Mennel, eds. Turkish German Cinema in the New Millennium: Sites, Sounds, and Screens. NEW YORK; OXFORD: Berghahn Books, 2014

Hoad, Phil, “Continental drift,” The Guardian, February 14. 2008. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/feb/15/worldcinema

Hochhäusler, Christoph “Interview: Christoph Hochhäusler On The Lives of Victors And Dangers Of Being Labeled.” by Dustin Chang, Screen Anarchy, April 13, 2015. Web Magazine. https://screenanarchy.com/2015/04/interview-christoph-hochhausler-on-the-lies-of-the-victors-and-dangers-of-being-labeled.html

Martin, James P. "Crossing Bridges/Crossing Cultures: The Films of Fatih Akin." South Atlantic Review, Vol.74, No. 2, 2009: 82-92

O’Brien, Mary-Elizabeth. Post-Wall German Cinema and National History: Utopianism and Dissent. Boydell and Brewer, 2012

Roy, Rajendra and Anke Leweke. The Berlin School: Films from the Berliner Schule. Museum of Modern Art, 2013

Takenag, Lara. “I Will Never Be German: Immigrants and Mixed-Race Families in Germany on the Struggle to Belong,” New York Times, November 8, 2019

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Top 10 Favorite Performances of the Year

Here are my favorite performances of the year, in alphabetical order:

Tom Burke in Souvenir
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Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse
Dafoe

Zéa Duprez in Meteorites
Zéa Duprez

Maren Eggert in I was at Home, But...
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Juli Jakab in Sunset
Juli Jakab

Tom Mercier in Synonyms
Tom Mercier

Lupita Nyong'o in Us
Us

Song Kangho in Parasite
song kangho

Vitalina Varela in Vitalina Varela
Vitalina

Roschdy Zem in Oh Mercy!
oh mercy

Top 10 Discoveries 2019

2019 has been a pitiful year of movie watching for me. The job, the school kept me way too busy for me to consume cinema as voraciously as I used to. These are my meager offering of what I managed to watch that are not 2019 releases:

1. Die Innere Scherheit/The State I am In (2000) - Petzold
TheStateImIn

2. Stromboli (1950) - Rossellini
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3. Der Shöne Tag/A Fine Day (2001) - Arslan
A Fine Day

4. Angst essen Seele auf/Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) - Fassbinder
Ali

5. A New Leaf (1971) - May
190121_r33585-2400

6. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) - Altman
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7. Gegen die Wand/Head-On (2004) - Akin
Head-On

8. Ce sentiment d'lété/That Summer Feeling (2015) - Hers
Cesentimentdelete

9. Im Lauf der Zeit/Kings of the Road (1976) - Wenders
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10. Vargtimmen/Hour of the Wolf (1968) - Bergman
hourofthewolf

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Top 20 Favorite Films 2019

2019 has been a shitty year. The world is literally burning and political crises' been popping up everywhere at a rate that is certainly not normal that I really feel bad for the next generation who will inherit all of this gigantic mess. Personally, I had experienced some unprecedented health problems stemming from my childhood that put my wife through some trying times to say the least.

Starting an MA program in Screen Studies while working full time, after twenty something years out of college didn't help the matters much either, I reckon. But I have to say that I am learning a lot. I am realizing that there is a limit in being an enthusiastic cinephile alone to take in what all of cinema offers, that one needs a vigorous examination even in what you love and is passionate about.

So once again, I tried to take solace in cinema and its forever hopefulness and energy in 2019. Female filmmakers took center stage this year and ended up with 5 films represented on my list (7 in last year's top 30). But more importantly, most of the films in top 10 deal with female perspective. Regretfully I missed some films I wanted to see this year, specifically: Beanpole, The Load and Monos. Hopefully I will catch up to them soon and the viewings will be reflected on next year's list.

So without further a do, this is my favorites of 2019, the last year of the decade! Happy holidays and Happy New Year!

Click on titles for full reviews:

1. Atlantics - Diop
Atlantics
Expertly weaving the current headlines of maritime disasters, in which countless African refugees searching for better life meet their watery grave at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, and the ghost story with the female solidarity twist, Atlantics has all the right ingredient to be a success story of a small art film breakthrough recalling Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. It's a melancholic romance film set in bustling Dakar, featuring the lives and hopes of young Senegalese we seldom get to see. It's also hopeful and lyrical yet pointy.

2. Vitalina Varela - Costa
vitalina-varela
As usual, Vitalina Varela is stunning to look at. Every frame is a work of art. Greatly aided by Leonardo Simões, Costa's cinematographer since Colossal Youth, and João Gazua and Hugo Leitão's sound work, the film gives the lives of its inhabitants the poeticism they deserve.

3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire - Sciamma
portrait-of-a-young-woman-on-fire
What’s remarkable about Portrait of a Lady on Fire is its timelessness. This is not another tragic drama about women trapped by their circumstances. There is a joyful vibrancy about the film. They fully accept their fate, laid out by period and society. Yet they enjoy their few days together and remember it forever. It’s super life affirming and uplifting, rather than sad.

4. An Elephant Sitting Still - Hu
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It's a substantial human drama with deeply felt characters with their crushed, burdened souls. The idea of using an immobile circus elephant (which never materializes on screen) as a wised out Buddha who silently observes human follies play out around him as some sort of metaphor for happiness/salvation has a direct lineage from that of a whale in Werkmeister Harmonies. It's better off that we don't get to see it. Only hear its roar during its end credit, just like that that donkey's cry in the beginning of Au Hasard Balthazar. The beast of hopes and dreams. The beast of burden. An Elephant Sitting Still is beautifully tragic. And it a major film that came out in recent years that I can recall.

5. Sunset - Nemes
Sunset
Sunset juxtaposes a society on the brink of self-destruction with something trivial and decadent as a designer hat shop. There is something creepy about all the beautiful, young women hat-makers preparing for the dance ball for the crown prince and princess and be chosen as a personal milliner and move to Vienna. Nemes doesn't give an easy answer to any of these intrigues. Instead, he makes us work for it. And it’s damn well worth it. As the title indicates, the film tells a lot about human hubris and rightfully reflects on the decadent, chaotic world we lead toward the edge of extinction right now. One can read Sunset as a warning that history repeats itself. But it’s the last segment that also shows the endurance of human spirit. Let’s hope we are strong enough to withstand what’s coming for us.

6. Asako I & II - Hamaguchi
asako
Based on Shibasaki Tomoka's novel Netemo sametemo - Waking and Dreaming, the film tackles on letting go of the first love from a woman's point of view in a very unique way. Hamaguchi has a great sensitivity dealing with delicate subject and make his actors shine.It is refreshing to see a Japanese film that is modern and direct and not trying to be overtly Ozu-y or arthouse poetic or genre-y, yet very Japanese. I very much appreciate Hamaguchi Rusuke's work.

7. Was at Home, But… - Schanellec
I was at home
Just like other Schanelec's work, I Was at Home, But... is a puzzle piece that is never solvable. We have opaque characters with Bresson style delivery. We instead concentrate on gestures, details inside the frame in compensation for the lack of dialogue. It's that fragmentary images and colors that we play around our heads long after we leave the theater to make sense of it. Even more so than Godard's, Schanelec's cinema concentrates on 'visual' part of the medium. It is the best kind of cinema I can think of.

8. Souvenir - Hogg
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Calling The Souvenir an autobiographical filmmaking would be selling the film short. It's a delicate film that doesn't seem to have a special agenda other than humanizing the aspect of the people she encountered earlier in her life. With her baby face and pale complexion and her gaping mouth, Swinton Byrne is terrific in the role of Julie. But it's Tom Burke who steals the show here. His charming yet slightly dangerous demeanor - a cross between Oliver Reed and Hugh Grant is magnetic.
We meet people in our lives who changes and shapes you when you are on the verge of adulthood for better or worse. The Souvenir succeeds in eulogizing that period of your life lovingly and poignantly.

9. Synonyms - Lapid
synonyms
Synonyms can be a difficult film: it can be seen as rudderless and abrasive. Sense of irony dominates the film as Yoav struggles with his identity. It's packed with dueling exaggerated visions of perverted and uncaring Europe (France in particular) and the uber military culture the director Nadav Lapid grew up with. The film concludes, as Yoav trying to open the door by slamming his body against it, you can't escape where you came from and the gap between the world you are trying to assimilate remains shut closed. But the film works, thanks largely to Tom mercier's physical as well as verbal, at times verging on slapstick level on both counts.

10. Just Don’t Think I'll Scream - Beauvais
just_dont_think_ill_scream-publicity_still-h_2019
Culling mainly from thrillers and gialli, the images, lasting not longer than few seconds, features images of gestures, objects and actions, never lingering long enough to see the faces of recognizable actors or persons. But nonetheless they are thrilling, matching up Beauvais's continual rants. It's as personal as a film gets: bonding with his estranged father after taking him in after he fell ill over a gremillon film, and witnessing him dying watching the film, procrastinating in getting rid of personal belongings he obsessive compulsively collected over the years - records, books, CDs and DVDs, furniture.... Not since Godard's essay films, have I encountered a purely visual film that is culled from existing material that is also immensely pleasurable. Just Don't Think I'll Scream works beautifully, precisely because it's so personal. This is what an essay film of a true cinephile should look like.

11. The Lighthouse - Eggers
the-lighthouse-figurine
The Lighthouse is a crazy hallucinogenic trip that is extremely original. The two actor's physiognomy, Dafoe's troll-like, gangly body and posture and bushy beards (right out of Van Gogh's paintings) and Pattinson's bulging eyes and angular face, is very well used. There are many unforgettable imageries. The Lighthouse is a quite unique movie watching experience.

12. Maya - Hansen-Løve
maya
The film could easily be called Gabriel since it's mostly about him. We get his back story, his family and love life and Maya is just a young girl who falls in love with a hunky, intense French guy. She is just starting out her life. So this is why the film is an interesting narrative departure for Hansen-Løve, who's been making thoughtful observations on people in transitional period. Maya is not unlike Camile character in her Goodbye First Love, except she is not the main character. Or is she? Maya is a movie about that special person who had made a big impact on your life. He or she pretty much made what kind of a person you are now. Again, beautifully scripted and ambitious in its scale, Hansen-Løve keeps expanding her territories while not losing sight on where her priorities are - portraying melancholy of growing up and acknowledging that there is a price to pay for following your passions.

13. Bacurau - Filho, Dornelles
bacurau
As the Bacurauans get rid of foreigners and local traitors, at a glance, without the context of what's happening in Brazil, the film is a silly, tacky man-hunting-man akin to The Most Dangerous Game or Naked Prey. But it isn't. Bacurau highlights the resilience and resolve of Brazilian people against mounting assault of multi-national corporations backed by Government military to devastate their beautiful, once burgeoning country.

14. Oh Mercy! - Desplechin
oh mercy
The sordid story is nothing to brag home about. There are millions stories like this we see on TV every night. But it's Desplechin's so very human portrait of these characters that is the heart of the film. There are several compelling scenes in the film but the one most stuck with me is Daoud's cool observation of the girls' relationship that sums up their entire history. He tells Claude what he sees - A pretty girl who was popular in school. But she finds out she can't really get what she wants or want others to get it for her in real life. Time in a town like Roubaix wasn't kind to her. She is stuck with her childhood friend who still worships her. They live in a day to day life in a squalor. It's a bad relationship. She knows it all to be true. Oh Mercy! is certainly different from any other Desplechin film I watched over the years. But it's any less intriguing. The love he has for his hometown and its inhabitants are undoubtedly palpable. Desplechin is a master storyteller and humanist.

15. Zombi Child - Bonello
zombi child
Bonello, forever sensualist, presents some beautiful, lyrical shots of Narcisse the zombie standing erect motionlessly, looking afar in the fields, in ancient ruins. It is pretty evident that he takes much of the lyricism from I Walk with a Zombie. Fanny's silly school girl story aside, Zombi Child digs deeper into hasty western appropriation of everything non-european, non-anglo American culture. It disregards the cultural, historical, ethnographical significance of the origins of a zombie in exchange for sensationalism. Narcisse’s journey back home is more interesting than Fanny’s story here.

16. Wild Goose Lake - Diao
wild goose lake
The film showcases the changing China: from the emergence of middle class and its subculture - 'bathing beauties' with their wide brimmed straw hats, lessons in which motorbikes are more valuable and easier to steal, to the rigid police state with CCTV in every corner and sheer precision of its well trained tactical force in action. Attention to detail and controlled chaos Diao manages in the film is nothing short of astounding.

17. Us - Peele
us
Smart and quick witted, Peele knows when he needs to be obvious - title Us also doubles as US, as above so below/mirror image concept, a guy holding Jeremiah 11:11 sign, NWA's Fuck da Police blasts from Alexa like device (Police is 14 minutes away) in a pivotal moment, and when to be subtle - ok, not really. There are clever moments like Adelaide telling her white friends that black people don't have time to do frivolous shit (I forget what the conversation was about), suggesting the larger context that black movies can't afford melodramas because that would be a luxury. Or Gabe impulsively buy a used boat which is named B-yacht'chy. Also liked that Peele didn't overlit his actors, especially Nyong'o whose very dark complexion gives her more time to act with her expressive eyes. But I don't believe allegory and horror genre are enough to tell the whole story of racial AND economic injustice in this country. And I don't think whatever the elevation the genre has been garnering as high art, it can't express the corruption of humanity by capitalism wholely.

18. Sophia Antipolis - Vernier
sophia antipolis
Just like his previous film Mercuriales, Vernier's elliptical, loosely connected stories, Sophia Antipolis examines the seedy underbelly of a shallow modern society, urban isolation and loneliness and human connection. Daring, cerebral and playful with some lyrical 16mm shot images, it's one of the most invigorating film experience I've had in a while.

19. Meteorites - Laguna
meteorites
A young girl's search for her place in the universe is the theme of Meteorites, Romain Laguna's sensual debut feature. Nina (Zéa Duprez) is a High School dropout working at a dinosaur theme park in the south of France. One night, she witnesses a meteor charting across the sky and crashing over the rugged mountain. It seems only she saw the celestial event and no one else. Shot in full frame with vibrant colors, lush sun drenched surroundings and with Duprez's sultry presence, Meteorites is an affecting, lyrical coming of age film.

20. The Mountain - Alverson
the mountain
The Mountain is a peculiar film about self discovery and the price of freedom. Its somber tone is only broken by the presence of Denis Lavant, a veteran French actor, known for his acrobatic physicality and manic energy in films by Leos Carax and Claire Denis. Here he is Jack, a father of Susan (Hanna Gross), a girl with an unstable mental state which her father deems in need of lobotomy, who becomes a love interest for Andy. Lavant's over the top screeching, unintelligible, animalistic, (at least it sounds like) largely improvised monologue (in French and English and otherwise) steals the latter part of the film. Alverson has a singular sense of humor and tone, rarely seen in American indie cinema. And I welcome it.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Mirror Not Window

Just Don't Think I'll Scream (2019) - Frank Beauvais
just_dont_think_ill_scream_-_cat
French director Frank Beauvais, after a bad break up with his partner, retreated to his childhood home in Alsace region near the border of Germany and Switzerland in 2016. There he obsessively watched hundreds of movies in seclusion, made Just Don't Think I Will Scream out of 400+ movie clips, reflecting his mood and isolation and the world around him. Part compilation film, part very personal film essay, Just Don't Think is a 'mirror rather than window'. Culling mainly from thrillers and gialli, the images, lasting not longer than few seconds, features images of gestures, objects and actions, never lingering long enough to see the faces of recognizable actors or persons. But nonetheless they are thrilling, matching up Beauvais's continual rants. It's as personal as a film gets: bonding with his estranged father after taking him in after he fell ill over a gremillon film, and witnessing him dying watching the film, procrastinating in getting rid of personal belongings he obsessive compulsively collected over the years - records, books, CDs and DVDs, furniture....

Beauvais also narrates the tumultuous world we've been witnessing in recent times- the rise of Islamic terrorism in Europe, the rise of right-wing violence, French elections and anxiety over uncertain political future.

Not since Godard's essay films, have I encountered a purely visual film that is culled from existing material that is also immensely pleasurable. Just Don't Think I'll Scream works beautifully, precisely because it's so personal. This is what an essay film of a true cinephile should look like.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Humorous Inventions: Jessica Hausner on Little Joe

jessica_hausner
Jessica Hausner's wickedly funny Sci-fi genre twist LITTLE JOE garnered accolades at this year's Cannes Film Fest. The Austrian filmmaker was also honored with her own retrospective at the Film at Lincoln Center this fall. Her female perspectives and unique take on genre conventions make her one of the most interesting voices in contemporary cinema. I sat down with Hausner when she was in town for her retro.

Congratulations on Emily Beecham winning the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival and also on your retrospective that is about to happen here at the Lincoln Center.

Thank you.

Your retrospective is titled ‘Miracle Worker’. I am wondering how you feel about being called a miracle worker in this case?

Well…I didn’t even know that the title of my retro was miracle worker. It might be because I made a film about a miracle called Lourdes. But no, I don’t have any other specific thoughts about why it’s called that. (laughs)

It is interesting going through your filmography that each film is playing with the genre.

Some. Not all. I don’t think Lourdes is playing with the genre.

But I can see that it can be called a religious film that is not religious. It’s kind of a sly take on religious film, something that you are playing with.

Yes.

What I think about this is that when you are creating a new project, do you approach it as a genre film? How does Jessica Hausner’s process work?

Well, I start with a very short idea. Some times it’s only a sentence or logline or something. In terms of Little Joe, I did think about the genre, especially Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as you can tell when you see the film. It’s obviously a film that plays around with that set up.

Yes.

There is even a psychosis called Cat Grass syndrome – when you think that a person you know well is kidnapped and replaced by an imposter. It’s really funny to think but it really exists as a psychosis. But also as a genre film, it’s a funny set up to get into more a philosophical questioning. So yes, for Little Joe I used it and corrupt that genre convention to make something unique out of it.

There’s a film academic who said that about Christian Petzold’s films. How he sees his films is that Petzold is walking through the cemetery of genres and picking up the remains of the genre to make his films. Do you agree with that?

No. I mean I understand what he is saying. Petzold films do function like genre films, although they are Petzold films. That’s his specific style.

But I don’t think that’s exactly how I am doing it. Even though I mixed it in in Little Joe, I am not constantly doing it. And I do not trust genre. I have to say that as a woman, genre films are not really my cinematic language. When I started filmmaking at the academy, we only learned the male film language. I’m not saying it’s necessarily bound to gender but it is. For example, when we talk about Petzold, at the film academy, we had to shoot this exercise…how do you call it, a chase scene. It was time for me to do something else because I was not interested in doing a chase scene at all. I remember back then all the filmmaking instructions were so one sided and were a lot about genre films. If Petzold finds it now to used those genre, it is his world. But it’s not mine.

You’ve done the French language film as we talked about LOURDES. LITTLE JOE is your first English language film. Was it any different than how you approach your German language films?

No. I worked very much the same as I always do. I start with my idea and do a lot of research I write a script, with Geraldine Bajard. We wrote Lourdes, Amour Fou and Little Joe together. I usually write scripts in German and it is translated to French or English. But I do like working in English. It’s the humor in English language I like. I think there is a same stride of dry humor that Austrian’s have in common with English.

Was it any different directing English actors such as Emily Beecham or Ben Wishaw?

I think it’s very similar to me directing in other languages. I usually direct actors concentrate on the false side of their characters than on their authentic side. In all my films I try to show that these people are manipulated in order to function well in societies, so they can talk and act according to the society we live in. Some one termed it ‘unconscious social pressure’. I had to remember that. (laughs). This is what I work with whether I work in German, French or English. I think we all have this codes this and modify our behaviors to follow that code.

It’s true.

One thing to add, I don’t think it’s anything negative. In Little Joe, and other films as well, I just wanted to show that it is necessary. Because otherwise we would not be able to live together if we say whatever’s on our mind all the time. That would be a nightmare!

In LITTLE JOE which is a paranoia film, there is no paranoia. There is no emotional fireworks, no people screaming on top of their lungs or flailing their arms. What I feel when I watch your films is that even though it’s funny, there is this sadness coming from disconnections between characters.

Yes.

Are depression and sadness something you consider when you write a script?

No. On the contrary, I try to focus on the humor. I can only write a script when the tone is slightly funny. You mention Amour Fou. I did work on the script about double suicide a long time ago and it was about depression. When I wrote it and read it, I thought, I want to kill myself it’s super sad. So I put it in the drawer and didn’t touch it anymore. Only 15 years later, by chance, I read about this German poet Heinrich von Kleist and when he asked different people to die with him – he asks his best friend who said no, then he asks his cousin and then he asks this random woman, Henriette who finally consents because she thinks she is dying anyway, so I found that was a comedy and that I could laugh about it. It’s a friendly laugh. It’s a laugh of understanding the basic human condition. The weakness of the character, the ridiculousness of it all.

The symmetry of your films, the film language – the mise-en-scene, the colors, everything is very precise. I know that you’re from an artistic family – your father is a painter, so is your sister. Did you study art yourself?

No I did not study art myself. But I do think that my family had an influence on my interest and my love for art for sure. When we were little, I have two sisters, one is an artist and the other is a costume designer who works with me on my films, so the costume designer sister and me would be absorbed in the conversations my parents had about art and colors and artists. During vacations we didn’t go to the beach, we went to the museums. We triggered alarm several times because we were looking at the paintings too closely.

I watched AMOUR FOU recently and it is in LITTLE JOE too. There is sadness in those films. And it affected me.

I think there is sadness and there is lightness in all things. I don’t go out to make a sad movie necessarily. As the saying goes, tragedy plus time is comedy. Then you can get that humor.


Little Joe plays one week engagement at Quad Cinema, 12/6-12/12 in New York.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Favorite 100 of the Decade, in Pictures

Obviously, there are a lot of great films I am forgetting. But it took a while to compile this list. Enjoy:

My Post
100. Let the Corpses Tan
99. You were Never Really Here
98. Clouds of Sils Maria
97. Mandy
96. It Follows
95. Jeannette, The Childhood of Joan of Arc
94. Drive
93. Black Coal, Thin Ice
92. Wild Boys
91. The Wild Pear Tree
My Post(1)
90. Happy as Lazzaro
89. Nobody's Daughter Haewon
88. Lady Bird
87. The Favorite
86. After the Storm
85. 0.5 MM
84. Lost River
83. The Ornithologist
82. My Golden Days
81. Neon Demon
My Post
80. 24 Frames
79. Toni Erdmann
78. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
77. Right Now, Wrong Then
76. Certain Women
75. Son of Saul
74. Only God Forgives
73. Goodbye First Love
72. Shoplifters
71. Souvenir
My Post (1)
70. Girlhood
69. Despite the Night
68. Suzanne
67. The Wonders
66. Goodbye to Language
65. Paradise Trilogy
64. Ismael’s Ghosts
63. Court
62. Félicité
61. Leviathan
60-51
60. Cold War
59. Faust
58. Tabu
57. Kaili Blues
56. The Lobster
55. Stoker
54. Cosmopolis
53. The Revenant
52. Only Lovers Left Alive
51. The Witch
50-41
50. Exhibition
49. Oslo, August 31st
48. Love Battles
47. Barbara
46. A Touch of Sin
45. Never Let Me Go
44. High Life
43. Ida
42. An Elephant Sitting Still
41. Inside Llewyn Davis
40-31
40. Things to Come
39. Sunset Song
38. Asako I & II
37. Blue is the Warmest Color
36. Wuthering Heights
35. Sunset
34. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
33. Personal Shopper
32. Mad Max: Fury Road
31. Transit
30-21
30. The Turin Horse
29. Cemetery of Splendor
28. The Master
27. Ash is Purest White
26. Atlantics
25. Film Socialisme
24. By the Time It Gets Dark
23. Phoenix
22. The Dreamed Path
21. Jauja
20-11
20. Eden
19. Horse Money
18. Blade Runner 2046
17. The Act of Killing/The Look of Silence
16. Hors Satan
15. Moonlight
14. White Material
13. Amour
12. Holy Motors
11. American Honey
My Post
10. Burning
9. Melancholia
8. Sleep Has Her House
7. Long Day’s Journey into Night
6. Certified Copy
5. Zama
4. Under the Skin
3. Arabian Nights
2. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
1. Twin Peaks: The Return Ep. 8