Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Film #16: Friendship!

Released: 2009
Directed by: Markus Goller

This week, I’ve decided to review a film that (to my knowledge) isn’t available with English subtitles. And to be honest, I’m not sure whether it would work if it were.

Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, East Germans Veit (Friedrich Mücke) and his best friend Tom (Matthias Schweighöfer) decide to go to San Francisco. Though they only have enough money to fly to New York, they go anyway and decide to make their way across the USA however they can. Eventually, it transpires that the real reason Veit is so intent on getting to San Francisco is that he believes his father (who escaped over the Wall) to be living there, and wants to find him before his impending birthday.

Their attempts to cross the country result in them travelling with the tamest substitutes for Hell’s Angels I’ve ever seen on film, stripping to earn money, and making friends with a German family in a town in the middle of nowhere. Obviously, realism is not one of the goals of this film, and there are plenty of stereotypes to be seen – both German and American. Nevertheless, the ending did manage to surprise me, and there are some affecting and bleak depictions of life in East Germany.

There are a couple of reasons why I don’t think this film would work with English subtitles, and perhaps with an English-speaking audience in general. Firstly, comedy can be quite a culture-specific thing, so some of the jokes might fall flat. The subtitles would also have to tone down the language a bit: The film is rated in Germany as suitable for ages 6 and above, and although an increasing number of mild swear words can be found in films rated 12A and below over here, Germans still tend to be a bit freer with their on-screen curses. 

Finally, the entire film is spoken in a mixture of German and English, from native speakers to foreigners making ‘hilarious’ attempts to speak another language. One character even speaks a (sometimes distracting) mixture of the two. Whatever you consider the effect of that to be, subtitles could well ruin it. 

Ultimately, some films will only appeal to their home audience and other fluent speakers familiar with the culture. I think this might be one of them.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Film #15: The Lives of Others (15)

Released: 2006
Directed by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Original title: Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others)

Moving house has meant I’ve struggled to find the time to watch any films recently. Now that my DVDs are out of storage, what could be better than revisiting one of the best German movies I’ve ever seen, the 2007 winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film? 

The Lives of Others opens with Stasi agent Wiesler (the late Ulrich Mühe) teaching a class on interrogation techniques, putting a cross against the name of a student who suggests it might be inhumane. Soon after, Wiesler and his boss are ordered to monitor playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) in the hope that they will dig up enough dirt to get him out of the way and leave his girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), open to the less than appealing advances of a government minister.

Immediately, the vibrancy of East Berlin’s artistic community contrasts with Wiesler’s sparse, lonely existence, and it is not long before he realises just how much joy has been leached from his world by the regime under which he operates. Identifying more and more with Dreyman’s politics, Wiesler begins to omit information from his reports to save the writer from imprisonment. However, his actions cannot continue unchecked, and ultimately end in tragedy.

A sensational cast moves around a fantastic performance from Ulrich Mühe; whilst his character may seem unassuming and becomes more sympathetic as the film progresses, the occasional flash of menace reminds us that he has made a career of persecuting others and ruining their lives. As a Stasi agent, he has infiltrated every aspect of his targets’ lives, turning lovers against lovers and neighbours against neighbours with a mere hint of how their families – or themselves – will suffer. 

I suspect I may be preaching to the converted here, but I really can’t recommend this film enough.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Film #14: Atomised (15)

Released: 2006
Directed by: Oskar Roehler
Original title: Elementarteilchen (Elementary particles)

Of all the films I’ve watched since starting this blog, this is definitely one of my favourites. Based on the novel by Michel Houellebecq (which I haven't read, but definitely will), if Atomised is anything to go by, Philip Larkin was right on the money in his poem ‘This Be The Verse’. Every significant character – and even some who appear for just a few minutes – is infused with emotional or sexual dysfunction, and even when this is not signalled explicitly, its spectre lurks in the background.

Dumped with their respective grandparents and only introduced to one another in their early teens, half-brothers Bruno (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Michael (Christian Ulmen) have been emotionally scarred by their sexually liberated mother in very different ways. Michael has buried himself in scientific research – ironically focusing on artificial reproduction – and denied himself the opportunity to be happy. As for Bruno, he spends so much time fantasising about an unobtainable – indeed, non-existent – female sexuality that he risks losing both his family and his grip on reality. 

Chance encounters for the pair of them open the door to a very different and brighter future with women who understand them, but the odds are just too stacked for everyone to come out unscathed. Dramatic but not melodramatic, the film boasts great performances from all of the leads and some (mainly sexual) moments that made me gasp in disbelief. Christian Ulmen takes the more restrained, less showy role, while Moritz Bleibtreu gets his teeth into a character who starts off so frustrated he borders on sleazy and desperate, but ends the film so broken that all he can do is turn to psychiatric nurses who hold his hand and give him the affection he should have received from his mother as a young boy.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Some thoughts on finding foreign films

Thanks to the internet, it’s really quite easy these days to find out about foreign-language films and identify the ones that interest you. But how do you go about actually watching them? 

The fact is, many areas of the UK do not have cinemas that show foreign films on a regular basis. In most of the places I’ve lived, I’ve been lucky to have easy access to cinemas such as the Showroom in Sheffield and the Broadway in Nottingham. However, many people have to travel quite a way to watch anything other than the latest blockbusters (which I’m not disparaging, don’t get me wrong; I like a good superhero movie as much as the next person).

But if you love cinema and want to see films in languages other than English, you can normally find a way:

- I am eternally grateful to online rental and streaming services because without them, I’d be waiting for the occasional foreign film on BBC Four. One that I’ve been meaning to try out for a while is Curzon Home Cinema (thanks to Rachel Malcolm over at Francofille for the heads up!)

- Does your local university have a cinema? If so, they probably show a couple of films each week (generally a couple of months after their release), many of which may not have been shown at your local multiplex. Tickets tend to be slightly cheaper than normal cinemas and I often find that they offer a more pleasant atmosphere because the audience has made a real effort to seek out the film.

- Are there any film societies in your area? Do a quick search online and you never know what you might find! If you want to start a society, check out the British Federation of Film Societies, which has more than 750 titles available for booking, and also provides a map of societies already running around the country.

If you have any other suggestions, or examples from your neighbourhood, I'd love to hear them!

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Film #13: Nowhere in Africa (15)

Released: 2001
Directed by: Caroline Link
Original title: Nirgendwo in Afrika (Nowhere in Africa)

Based on Stefanie Zweig’s autobiographical novel, this film concentrates on the Redlich family – Jettel, Walter and their daughter Regina – who manage to escape to a life of farming in Africa before Hitler steps up his campaign against the Jews. But while Regina is young enough to pick up Swahili and the local customs without much trouble, her mother (played by Juliane Köhler, whom you may recognise as Eva Braun in Downfall) longs to return to their old life, and her refusal to adapt and her interactions with the family’s cook, Owuor, are uncomfortably reminiscent of the treatment her fellow Jews are receiving back home.

Over the years, their huge change in lifestyle and the knowledge – or lack thereof – of what has happened to the rest of their family jeopardises Walter and Jettel’s relationship on many occasions. And despite being thousands of miles away from Germany, they soon find just how far-reaching the repercussions of the Second World War can be, not least in the way they are treated with suspicion simply because of where they come from.

This sort of autobiographical film can sometimes feel a bit stilted if it tries to cover a long period of time, and especially if it tries to make a big leap in a character’s age. Here, Regina's transition from child (Lea Kurka) to teenager (Karoline Eckertz) is done fairly smoothly, and the other characters are allowed to age realistically. 

All in all, I enjoyed the film but didn’t find it particularly gripping. For me, the most affecting aspect was the relationship that develops between Regina and Owuor as the years go by. However, I struggle to see why it was rated 15 rather than 12. There are some brief sex scenes and a couple of moments involving ritual animal slaughter (not too graphic), but I can’t think of anything else. Any thoughts?