Saturday, February 15, 2020

Eternal Cinema

La Película infinita/The Endless Film (2018) - Listorti
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Leandro Listorti, filmmaker and curator of the film museum in Buenos Aires, makes a non-narrative film culled from never completed, abandoned Argentinian films. La película infinita Shows you the power of cinema, purely in visual terms (sometimes accompanied by music, bits of dialog, minor sound effects, some synced with the original footages and others not). The lure of these images are undeniable - the way they demand your full attention suck you in is nothing short of miraculous. We all know that these are unfinished films. We are all aware that it's not going to go anywhere. But it doesn't matter. The pull of the scenes are so strong and mysterious, whether it's a barrel of a gun pointing, a shadowy figures in the background, the chalk marks on the floor.... A scene is a great promise: a start or in the middle of mystery that will never be solved. We want more. La Película infinita will make a great double feature with another essay film, Ne croyez surtout pas que je hurle/Just Don't Think I will Scream.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

A Yellow Jacket is Just a Yellow Jacket, Nothing More: Angela Schanelec Interview

One of the leading figures of the Berlin School, Angela Schenelec has been quietly garnering reputation and fan base as one of the most important contemporary German directors, for her complex, enigmatic work since the early 90s with such films as Marseille and Orly. With her new film, I Was at Home, But…, she won a Silver Bear (Best Director prize) at Berlinale, 2019. The film is getting a theatrical run in New York on 2/14 and Film at Lincoln Center is presenting the complete retrospective titled Dreamed Paths: The Films of Angela Schanelec (2/7-2/13) As a big fan of Schanelec’s mysterious and thought-provoking films, I was ecstatic to find out that she would be in town for the last year’s New York Film Festival. I sought out to get a chance to talk to her during the festival and was richly rewarded with an one-on-one interview at posh yet empty Library Bar, situated in Hudson Hotel Midtown, last October afternoon.

I watched your latest film I Was at Home, But… and there’s a lot to take in. It starts with a pastoral scene with barnyard animals - a donkey in particular. I know you are a fan of Robert Bresson. Was Au hasard Bathazar something you were thinking about When you were making the film?

I mean, Au hazard Balthazar is one of the most beautiful films ever made. The first film I saw from Bresson was L’Argent. It impressed me very deeply. Many many questions arose in me after seeing that film, not only about filmmaking but about life. Then I saw other films by him. The last scene where the donkey is going to die in Au Hasard Balthazar…. I mean, there is nothing more to say. But I saw the film long ago…. At the same time, a donkey is a donkey, you know? Nothing more. Maybe I wanted to free myself (from Bresson) by showing it. The original idea was not Balthazar. Nevertheless, this Bressonian donkey has been in my mind for a long time. But there is a German fairytale: These barnyard animals live together in the house. There is a donkey and a dog and so on.

You mean the Bremen Town Musicians?

Yes. This was the idea for me. Humans don’t want them anymore because they are old. So they find each other and they live together in a house. So there are different influences for that scene.

It was interesting to me. I interpret it in respect to Balthazar that the donkey is protecting the dog whose nature is taking small animals apart. That he is there to forgive everything.


That he is a protector. That’s how I felt when I saw that scene. And it was very beautiful.

It seems that grief and death are hanging over the whole film. Was that your starting point for this film when you were first writing?

The starting point was the image of the boy who comes back and he is 13 or so. I saw him all dirty at a street crossing which is now not in the film. And then…so what does that mean? And yes I have a son but he never disappeared. Maybe the image came about from the relief that he never disappeared or fear that he could have disappeared. And then I wrote scene by scene and that’s how the film came about. It was never my intention to write about grief.

It wasn’t?

No it wasn’t. It came up during writing. So he comes home and who else is there- there’s a mother and a little sister. Who else? No one. A dog but not a father.

The color choices on the film are also very striking to me. The boy’s jacket is yellow and the girl’s is bright red. All the images you present in all your films really fascinate me. Since your films are not strongly narrative oriented and in fragments, I always wanted to know for a long time what your writing process is like. How do you approach your subject? As you say, you build it up from a particular image in your mind?

Yes. In the beginning there is an image, then that image creates the next image. But I would say these images aren’t all that important. The emphasis on these images are not the approach I take. A yellow jacket is just a yellow jacket. There is nothing behind, I want to say. You understand what I mean? The yellow is felt because it’s just yellow. It doesn’t have to…

It doesn’t have to symbolize something…

Yes! I think that is very important to realize.

This so called the Berlin School where they group you with a bunch of other German filmmakers, the way I see it, the way I always thought of the Berlin School is that of transient life, the loss of identity or looking for identity. In your films I see that theme a lot as well. Do you have affinity to the School? Or is it just critics and scholars grouping you guys together.

In the beginning when the label first came up it was only Christian (Petzold), Thomas (Arslan) and me and we know each other because we started around the same time. Christian and I were never that close but Thomas and I are friends still. But we don’t talk much about our work. I mean, when we started together we talked about films and shared similar interests in films. More Thomas and me. We didn’t really involve ourselves in each other’s films - I am talking about writing scripts together or anything like that. We saw each other’s films when they were done. But later on, anything made in Germany that is not comedy is considered the Berlin School films (laughs), and they found some funny moments of my films too, so… (laughs) See, it became so general that it (the label) lost all meaning.

If it’s not a grouping of themes, I feel it’s a generational thing - you guys grew up and went through the Berlin wall coming down in 89 and there is this divide… Watching yours or Arslan’s or Petzold’s I always felt that it played a big role. But in I Was at Home, But… I didn’t feel that. I can say that there was a historical context regarding the divide in your last film Dreamed Path. I don’t see that much of a historical context in the new film. Is this a fair assessment?

I think it is true. I mean you are right that with Christian and Thomas, I am in the same generation, the generation who started to make films in the 90s. It’s different with Christoph Hochhäusler, Ulrich Köhler, because they are next generation of filmmakers. We are only ten or fifteen years apart but that plays a big role. You are right about the fact that we started in the 90s when Germany is saturated with comedies, so that plays a role. But time has passed since then. So there is no connection between Thomas and me and Christian’s films anymore. And that’s why.

Maren Eggert, the actress who has been in many of your early films, plays the main character, Astrid. I am curious about your working process with her. Does she know what you are trying to do with each of your films in advance? (she shakes her head) No?

But she can’t, because I don’t.

It’s not written in the script as...?

No the script is written exactly, the dialog’s written exactly what you see. Nothing is improvised. The long scene with the daughter and her, for example, I mean she learned it, she learned the text but she can’t know because I don’t know.


And the difference with her compared to other actors is that she gives me the feeling that she trusts me. She doesn’t ask questions. She takes the scene that is given and she lets herself go with it. She is not afraid, probably because we’ve known each other for so long. She knows that with me she doesn’t have to prove anything. It’s always the case that if you work with an actor that you haven’t worked with before, he wants to prove it to you. It really doesn’t make sense. It’s about situations and it’s about sentences and it’s about practical things that have to happen in front of the camera. It’s never about interpretation, it’s never about meaning, it’s never about where we are going. Maren doesn’t ask these because films are not about where we are going. (laughs) It’s about a scene. Then another scene.

Is it the same for you when you are directing children?

Yes. With I Was at Home, but also Dreamed Path I employed child actors. For Maren I give her the script since I know her and we have a mutual trust. But I don’t give other actors the whole script. Because it won’t make sense. It doesn’t have anything. On the contrary, if they saw the script, there will be more conflicting questions that will not be productive for the project. Sure for children I didn’t have the script. They didn’t need it.

It is fascinating to hear this since watching your films I had all these ideas about how you approach your films. This is very helpful.

There are many visual images that strike me in this film. There is a recurring image of the crown. I don’t want to ask what it means but how does it connect with the film?

The crown…

I was also thinking about Balthazar again, about the flower wreath the girl puts on the donkey.

Presenting the crown to someone is a very beautiful act. Then you make him very independent and strong in a way. Because the king doesn’t need to be told what he has to do or anything. I mean you can read it like that but you know it’s more complex. The crown means, “I exist and I don’t need you to…”

“Validate me?”

Yes. So then, giving the crown to children, it’s even more beautiful. But you can’t do it like that in real life. Shakespeare gave me a chance to do it. And to go one step further, there was a boy in the supermarket and I did it without Shakspeare since there was a crown already in the film.

I thought it was beautiful. It’s a striking image. The crown in the mud and the custodian picks it up. I loved that scene.

I loved the scene in the parking lot with the teachers who, I guess one professing his love to the fellow teacher and it broke my heart. How did you come up with the scene and how does that tie with the rest of the film?

The question of motherhood is the one that ties in. It was presented in the film very soon. I mean… it is always more complex than that. When mother doesn’t want to have a child, it stops right there and then. Every man, every boy has a mother. It has so many aspects. The fact that our society today we stopped accepting what nature makes possible. This notion of “I have the right to have a child” and “if the nature doesn’t give it to me, for whatever physicla circumstances, then modern medicine will give it to me”. This idea is very strange to me. That we don’t accept anymore what is given to us. And on the other hand, in the scene, she is the other way around. Physically she can get pregnant and can give birth but she doesn’t want children. So that’s how it came up. I was interested in a woman who says “no”. And it is impossible for the man to understand but it does not make him stop loving her.

No, this is true. That’s why the scene is beautiful and heart breaking because he asks, “so you love me and I understand that you don’t want to have a child but then what else is out there after we are gone?” It really struck me.

Yes. But there is nothing more to say than that in that scene. The young woman who decides not to have children, opposite mirror Astrid.

Another scene that I really loved was that Astrid was in the Kitchen and the kids were making mess and she just loses it. And the children try to console her and she just pushes them away. That’s tough for children.

That’s something I feel very strong about: children don’t judge. They are not able because they need the mother. At some point in their lives they start to judge but I think it’s a very existential point when that happens but in this film they don’t. It’s also important that there are two. They have each other. And that makes them stronger but also generous.

Also important for me that that kitchen scene is not some turning point. We see her the next morning that she is the same. That that scene is not some kind of clutch, as if that will solve things going forward. No, nothing can be solved. And life continues. In film dramaturgy, this would be the plot point. No it’s not. It’s not essential to be a plot point. It’s a scene of humans. Maybe they later will have some epiphany but they can not know at that point. I also don’t know.

Interesting point.

There has been 6 years gap between Orly and Dreamed Path. And three years gap between Dreamed Path and I Was at Home. Why is that? And what is your next project?

Yes I am working on a new script. But the long period between Orly and Dreamed Path was very painful. It’s a long story. The money wasn’t there and I had three producers. I had written I Was at Home already before I shot Dreamed Path. Also when I shot the Dreamed Path we had this summer scene in the beginning and at the end. But most of the scenes were shot in October and November and we had to wait 6 months to shoot the summer scene in Croatia and another part of Germany for the end of the film. There were also free phases that I was able to think about a new film. It’s based on the Oedipus myth. We now associate Oedipus with Freud, but my story is not that. The first part of the story is this child who was lost and grows up not knowing his real parents and accidentally murdering his real father and then also not knowing his mother and accidentally meeting her and falling in love with her. So that’s the first half of the film. Then they have a child and then they understand who they are.

I am interested.

We are trying to find the money for it and if everything goes well, I’d like to start shooting next September. I am really worried about how it’s gonna go with the financing because it will be more expensive than I Was at Home, but… because we want to shoot in Greece.

Got you. You shot in Greece before no?

Yes. Dreamed Path was also shot in Greece. It was also at higher cost. So this film, I Was at Home but was much lower cost and I produced it myself.

Is it always difficult to finance your film?


It’s a pity. Hopefully you won't have problems for the new one so we will be able to see it soon.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Post-Wall Cinema of Christian Petzold: The Berlin School and Beyond

Post-Wall Cinema of Christian Petzold: The Berlin School and Beyond - Mapping Germany’s Past, Present and Future

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Gespenster/Ghosts (2004) is a great introduction for getting into the world of German director Christian Petzold. The film’s cold and unforgiving atmosphere, daring split narrative structure, economy of its camera movements and edits, the acute representation of its female protagonists’ disconnection and loneliness, comments on Germany’s political & cultural landscape and collective German psyche in the post-wall neo-liberal Germany. With his latest, 15th feature length film Transit, getting a wide distribution in the States in 2019, I decided to examine the impact his films have made in modern German cinema and his representation of Germany’s past, present – both east and west, and future through 4 specific films from his filmography.

68er Studentenprotest Debatte Generation
In order to talk about Christian Petzold’s films and the Berlin School, in which he is considered as one of the key figures, one needs to talk about 68er Bewegung/German Student Movement of 1968. Around 1966, fueled by violent police crackdown and encouraged by other student protests across the globe, German university students, dissatisfied with the conservative, authoritarian policies of those in power (many of them from Nazi era), began organizing massive sit-ins and street demonstrations which started in Freie Universität Berlin/Free University Berlin, then spread around the country. They were rallying against the silence for the US imperial war in Vietnam, restrictions on civil rights and press and enacting German Emergency Acts, which was seen as the revival of fascism. The protests peaked in May 1968 with massive demonstrations resulting in the death of 2 students and declined after the coalition government passed the Emergency Acts which gave a power to the government to curb any dissident activities during national emergencies. This is also the time New German Cinema formed. 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 Farocki, Hartmut Bitomski, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Magarette von Trotta and many others projected their frustrations over artistic and political stagnation in the midst of the economic miracle which built on the backs of migrant labor. 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 the 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 becomes all the more prominent if one compares 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 catalyzing changes.” By contrast, Rentschler saw contemporary German cinema as lacking “oppositional energies and critical voices.” A decade went by which saw the fall of the Berlin wall and the directors who were born in the 60s came of age.

Christian Petzold with Harun Farocki

The Berlin School is considered the most significant film movement in Germany since the New German cinema. The first wave of its directors including Angela Schanelec (b.1962), Thomas Arslan (b.1962) and Petzold (b.1960) all attended Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin/The German Film and TV Academy Berlin (DFFB). It’s name, the Berlin School, first coined by film critic Merten Worthmann in describing Schanelec’s Passing Summer (2001) and later critics at Cahier du cinéma started grouping them as Nouvelle Vague Allemande, the Berlin School is loosely connected group of filmmakers (the second wave of Berlin School directors don’t necessarily come from DFFB) who were countering what mainstream German cinema had become- the cinema of consensus. They’ve been 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, Christoph Hochhäusler 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 Germany 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. Even though the Berlin School’s output doesn’t very much resemble those of New German Cinema and by the disciples of Oberhausen Manifesto, a declaration of 26 young German filmmakers to establish ‘a new German feature film” in 1962. I would argue that the connection between New German Cinema and the Berlin School runs deeper than both just countering mainstream cinema. There is definitely a strong leftwing political lineage, if not in teacher-student relations (Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky were DFFB Faculty), but in films of Petzold, Ulrich Köhler, Christoph Hochhäusler and many others the fighting spirit of counter cinema, as Köhler articulates that the job of art is not to be political (qua content) but to produce politically.

Although many critics emphasized the Berlin School’s presentist and realist approach, Petzold has been concerned with history in various ways throughout his filmography. With his last three films, Barbara which takes place in East Germany in the 80s, Phoenix, set in the aftermath of WWII and Transit, set in the near future/parallel present where Europe is in the grip of Fascist German regime once again, Petzold, unlike his compatriots of the Berlin School, does not shy away from Germany’s ugly past and finds new and innovative approaches to address the same inquiry – unfulfilled desire of finding a collective utopia that is ‘Deutschland’. By approaching Petzold’s four films in the years they were released rather than historical timeline, we gain insight to Petzold the filmmaker, evolving over time as a writer/director:

die innere sicherheit
The first feature Petzold directed outside TV, Die innere Sicherheit (2000) tells a story of a young girl named Jeanne whose parents belong to the far-left militant organization (unsaid in the film, but most likely Red Army Faction; RAF). For the first time, this was a breakout film by a filmmaker from the Berlin School and garnered a critical and commercial success for the first time. When the film starts, this nuclear family is on the run in Greece. Always extremely cautious of their surroundings – in colorless attire, not trusting anyone, constantly on the move in their comfy confines of their white Volvo, they lead voluntarily invisible lives. Jeanne has lived on the road all her life, thus never experienced a ‘normal life’. Now that she is a teenager, she questions her predicament for the first time. She wants to attend school. She wants to ‘hang out’ at the mall and buy new clothes. She wants to fall in love. She wants to do and be like any other girl her age in a neo-liberal, capitalist society. She rebels against her parents even though she understands that there is no way she would ever leave her parents. They are the only family she’s known. After finding out the bundle of money in Deutsch Marks they just dug up from the hidden place where their comrades had buried long ago is too old and rendered useless in the time of Euros, they decide to rob a bank. Despite the screwed up the situation, Jeanne has no choice but to stick with them. There is a heartbreaking scene that takes place in their Volvo: Jeanne’s parents find out that she fell in love with a boy her age during one of their stops, that she might have spilled too much information about who they are. Now Jeanne is a liability. The parents decide to ditch her with some relatives. They justify it by saying that it’s time she needs to lead a normal life. Jeanne protests back, “You decide that after 9 years? You shouldn’t have had me then! You can take that back now!” When she pleads that she will never love anyone again, the parents relent. Perhaps it’s because deep down, Jeanne knows the contemporary life in West Germany is superficial and there is no meaning to any of it. She understands that her parents, who have been violently resisting the status quo of capitalism since the 68er Bewegung, are right ultimately, even though her young life is wrecked. Again, like in many of the Berlin School films, the atmosphere is bleak and claustrophobic. Edit in the cuts are almost brutal, accentuating the fact that the family is always on the run and their emotions are in check. Julia Hummer, a young actress who also shines in Gespenster, embodies the angst of a new generation stuck between the ideals of the generation before her in the neoliberal capitalist society, forever vacillating where to put her allegiance. Der innere Sicherheit does, like Petzold’s other films before and after it, examine sensucht, the longing for that unrealized utopia in West Germany.

Barbara (2012) marks Petzold’s first deviation from presentist tendencies of the Berlin School. It is set in 1980 in East Germany, which was 9 years before the fall of the Berlin wall. It’s his first ‘period film’ depicting the life under German Democratic Republic (GDR)- the place of his parents. He himself never experienced growing up. It’s an entirely “A-picture” according to Christoph Höchhausler, a fellow filmmaker of the Berlin School and admirer. But the film is not a scathing indictment of the failed socialist state that was GDR. It depicts people, despite limited mobility and freedom, who try to find their sense of home as its title character chooses to do at the end of the film. And unlike German heritage films of the 90s, in which periodic details and costumes overshadow its political implications of the past, Barbara doesn’t feel like it’s a period film. Petzold’s view of the East is a of vilified view of the nightmarish failed state as it is often depicted. It’s a melodrama with the “slow realism”.
True to the Berlin School aesthetics, the film relies on unconstructed reality of effervescent beauty of everyday life. Barbara (played here by Nina Hoss) is a city doctor who gets banished to the country as a punishment when she applies for her exit visa to go west. All the while planning her escape to the west into the arms of her wealthy West German lover. 
She meets a young, good-natured fellow doctor Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld). He slowly wins her trust with his talent and sincerity. It turns out that he shares a similar history. There is a mutual attraction between them growing but things get a little more complicated when Stella, a teen runaway from a nearby labor camp is admitted to the hospital. She immediately latches on to Barbara. The official policy is to send her back to the camp as soon as she is well. As the planned escape date approaches, Barbara's personal ethics and morality are being challenged.

Petzold elegantly uses a famous painting to drive the point home in the middle of Barbara. Andre uses Rembrandt's painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp as an analogy for what it's like to be living under communist regime in the 1980s: you want to divert the attention of the spectators (or in this case, of nosy government officials) to obtain a little bit of relief/freedom in a rigid society which applies to Barbara's situation as well. The painting depicts the picture of the corpse of Aris Kindt, a convicted felon laying on the autopsy table, and Dr. Tulp explaining the musculature of the dead man’s denuded right hand (as opposed to the left, to be anatomically correct) to other medical professionals. Their gazes are fixed upon the opened anatomical textbook presented in the far corner of the painting, not on their subject, the dead man or his wrong hand. In a broader sense, Andre, knowingly or not, is showing the unrealized promise of socialist utopia – the gazes are fixed on the textbook and not on the subject suggesting the GDR’s socialist theory neglected its own people.

If Barbara was considered a period film, then Phoenix (2015), taking place just after World War II, takes the cake for being the real period film and ‘heritage picture’ (historical drama) in all of Petzold’s work. It’s a clean break from his insistence throughout all his filmography focusing his cinematic gaze on the present rather than past. The film is also unabashedly a genre cinema. Like many of the Berlin School filmmakers, Petzold is known for his use of genre filmmaking mold to tell stories. Yella (2007) is his take on American obscure indie horror Carnival of Souls (1962) and Jerichow (2008) is a reimagining of James M. Cain’s noir Postman Always Rings Twice. He once said in an interview, “I have the feeling that I make films in the cemetery of genre cinema, from the remainders that are still there for the taking.” He willfully contributes his talents to directing TV crime series Polizeiruf 110 and professed his love for Hollywood heist genre fare like Den of Thieves (2018) at a Transit screening Q & A session in New York. Taking obvious cues from Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1959), Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage (1947), Phoenix is a noir/melodrama to the highest degree. Clocking in at a very lean 98 minutes, the film revolves around a concentration camp survivor named Nelly, played once again by Nina Hoss, in her sixth collaboration with the director. Nelly returns to Berlin, now occupied by American GIs, with the aid of Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a case worker for the newly established Jewish State, who keeps urging Nelly to leave Germany and go to Palestine, and start anew as soon as her bandages come off. Badly disfigured by a gunshot to the head in the camp, Nelly is told by doctors to choose any face for reconstruction or 'recreation' - perhaps a face of a movie siren or to be a different person altogether. Despite the urging of others, Nelly insists on having her old face back. Even though she was told that her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld of Barbara) gave her up in order to save his own skin, Nelly can't stop searching for him, for she still loves him. In the film, they were a famous musical duo before the war, Nelly a chanteuse and Johnny a piano player. Her search for him leads to Phoenix, a cabaret where Johnny now works as a busboy. She is shattered when he doesn't recognize her. But there is enough of a passing resemblance that triggers Johnny to enact his scheme: he wants Nelly, now Esther, to pretend to be his wife who miraculously survived the camp and is now back, so as to get money from her estate (he secretly divorced her right before her arrest). Still deeply in love with Johnny, she goes along, keeping her emotions in check, pretending to learn old Nelly's behaviors, speech and writing (or just being herself), in order to see if he recognizes her in time. This might need a total suspension of disbelief from the audience, but in Petzold's assured hands, melodrama is kept to a minimum.

Petzold plays around with the idea of forced forgetfulness. After the atrocious war, many Germans wanted to erase its shameful history from their minds. It's Nelly and Lene who can't let go. Once she reemerges, she asks Johnny how to answer when the others ask about the camp. Johnny simply tells her, "They won't." But it's as if Johnny doesn't want to recognize her, even though she is right in front of him - buried and gone. At first, it's very hard to believe that a woman as striking as Hoss, with her penetrating blue eyes and sharp cheekbones, would be unrecognizable to anyone despite the disfigurement. Petzold's regular theme of loss of identity also plays a big role here. Nelly never had to be conscious of being Jewish before, but Nazi Germany made her do so, in a drastic way. She literally loses her face, but she longs for her old self even though she learns along the way that nothing is the same anymore. With these heady ideas in the background, the film moves along in its stunningly economic pace, without sacrificing beautiful period details or complexities of characters. In preparation for Nelly's comeback from the dead (to legitimize the inheritance), Johnny divulges about how his neighbors and friends turned away from them once Nelly was being hunted by the Nazis. The film perfectly builds up to its emotionally cathartic ending.

Phoenix further shows Petzold’s direct confrontation with Germany’s past, using the B-movie genre mold. He digs up the sensitive subject of collective guilt and forgetfulness and challenges the rise of white nationalism in post-wall, supposedly cosmopolitan Germany. The film is further evidence that the filmmaker is charting new territory away from the establishing tenet of the Berlin School.

Based on a 1942 novel by Anna Seghers on her experience in France under Nazi Occupation, Transit (2019) is another first in growing Petzold filmography. It is a film not originally written by the writer/director. It transposes its premise to modern day/near future Maseilles, again being under the Fascist Germany. With the rise of authoritarian right wing regimes and their nationalist rhetoric and anti-immigrant sentiments across Europe and everywhere, it is frightening to think that this film is not a far-fetched scenario. This time Petzold uses a sci-fi/noir mold to paint people who are again, on the run, pushed by outside forces. Georg (Franz Rogowski) is asked to deliver letters to Weidel, a writer of some importance in Paris. It's a dangerous mission- there are police raids daily and it's harder to get around on the street without constantly being asked for proper papers. Everyone knows a major raid is about to go down soon: there are people being dragged away in the streets by the heavily armed authorities- 'the purge' is at hand. But with some money promised, Georg is up to the challenge. But once he gets to Paris, he finds that the famed writer has committed suicide, leaving his documents and the latest manuscript behind. With others urging to take a sick Arab man to Marseilles and notify the Mexican consulate of the death of Weidel, Georg hops on the train to the now occupied port city. Petzold brilliantly equates this dystopian scenario with the current Syrian refugee crises. He also alludes the holocaust using trains as a human transport. The letters reveal that Weidel was promised a safe passage with his wife Marie (Paula Beer of Franz) to go to Mexico and that she will be waiting for him in Marseilles. Once he arrives at Marseilles, he reluctantly assumes the identity of Weidel, makes friends with an Arab immigrant boy whose dad (the sick man) he accompanied on the journey died on the way. He also sees Marie everywhere, scouring the city for her husband, day in and day out. She is involved with Richard, a doctor who has put his departure on hold because he doesn't want to leave her behind. No one wants to be the one who leaves. These characters are stuck, going around in circles, trapped by love, by the sense of loyalty or simply by human decency.

Transit's got a lot to do with guilty conscience: Guilt of leaving someone behind. Guilt of forgetting. Guilt of being indifferent. In this, the film is a great companion piece to Phoenix. It also is in line with Petzold's usual themes - people in transit, state of uncertainty caused by an outside force, by something bigger than an individual and again, the question of identity. Even though Petzold again uses the noir/sci-fi mold for his narrative, being an adaptation from the 40s, it resembles strongly of Nouveau Roman writers' works and feels closer to Alain Resnais’ contemplation on memories and forgetfulness.

Looking over the course of Petzold’s mid-career filmography, there are unmissable thematic consistencies coursing through all his work. Although he shares many similar themes with fellow filmmakers of the Berlin School, he deviates from presentist tendencies of the School and actively, engages in inquiries about what it means to be German into past and future. Petzold might be the fiercest and bravest of the bunch. Mapping Germany from east to west and from past to present and future, Christian Petzold continues to distinguish himself not only as a gifted storyteller but also as a keen observer of German history.

Sources Consulted

Abel, Marco. ​The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School​. Boydell and Brewer, 2013: ​1-28, 69-110

Baute, Michael, Ekkhard Knrer, Volker Pantenberg, Stefan Pethke and Simon Rothhler​. “​The Berlin School - A Collage.​” Senses of Cinema, ​Issue 55 (July 2010) a-collage-2/

Cook, Roger. “The Texture of History: Petzold’s Barbara and The Lives of Others.” Senses of Cinema, Issue 84 (September 2017)

Fisher, Jaimey. “Petzold’s Phoenix, Fassbinder’s Maria Braun, and the Melodramatic Archaeology of the Rubble Past.” Senses of Cinema, Issue 84 (September 2017)

Fisher, Jaimey, Marco Abel. “Christian Petzold: A Dossier.” Senses of Cinema, Issue 84 (September 2017)

Hjort, Mette, Scott MacKenzie eds. Cinema and nation. London; New York: Routledge, 2000: 260-278

Hochhäusler, Christoph. “The Protestant Method.” Senses of Cinema, Issue 84 (September 2017)

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

Petzold, Christian. “The Cinema of Identification Gets on my Nerves: An Interview with Christian Petzold.” by Marco Abel, Cineaste, Vol 33, No 3 (2008)

Prager, Brad. “No Time Like the Present: The Edges of the World in Christian Petzold’s Barbara.” Senses of Cinema, Issue 84 (September, 2017)

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

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.

        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.”

        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)

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.

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.

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
Screen Shot 2019-08-07 at 9.36.54 AM

Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse

Zéa Duprez in Meteorites
Zéa Duprez

Maren Eggert in I was at Home, But...
Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 8.49.43 AM

Juli Jakab in Sunset
Juli Jakab

Tom Mercier in Synonyms
Tom Mercier

Lupita Nyong'o in Us

Song Kangho in Parasite
song kangho

Vitalina Varela in Vitalina Varela

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

2. Stromboli (1950) - Rossellini
Screen Shot 2019-03-09 at 12.13.47 AM

3. Der Shöne Tag/A Fine Day (2001) - Arslan
A Fine Day

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

5. A New Leaf (1971) - May

6. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) - Altman
Screen Shot 2019-01-01 at 4.25.55 PM

7. Gegen die Wand/Head-On (2004) - Akin

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

9. Im Lauf der Zeit/Kings of the Road (1976) - Wenders
Screen Shot 2019-05-18 at 9.04.12 AM

10. Vargtimmen/Hour of the Wolf (1968) - Bergman

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
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
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
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
Screen Shot 2019-05-21 at 11.06.31 AM
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 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
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
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 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
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 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
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
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
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
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.