Thursday, 5 November 2015

Film #35: Er ist wieder da / Look who’s back

Released: 2015
Directed by: David Wnendt 

On a recent trip to Switzerland, I managed to fit in two cinema visits, so I finally have something to write about!

Timur Vermes’ novel Er ist wieder da sold in huge numbers (the English translation by Jamie Bulloch was released earlier this year), so a film was almost inevitable. Given the subject matter, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to watch it – would it prove to be an interesting concept or just incredibly insensitive? In the end, my curiosity got the better of me.

Adolf Hitler (played here by Oliver Masucci) finds himself in Berlin in 2014. Disorientated, he finds his way to a newspaper kiosk and is taken in by the owner. While recuperating from his ordeal, he soaks up all the information in the newspapers and magazines and comes to the conclusion that Germany has gone down the toilet. Meanwhile, beleaguered TV presenter Fabian has been shooting nearby and notices what he presumes to be a Hitler lookalike in the background of his footage. When he manages to find him, he is thrilled by the mystery man’s spot-on Hitler impersonation and decides to use him to revive his flagging career.

And so the unlikely pair tour around Germany. Fabian films “Hitler” commenting on everyday modern life and interacting with the general public. This section of the film blurs fiction and non-fiction in the same way as movies like Borat. What is worrying is the way that most people react – getting really excited, taking selfies, and telling Hitler what’s wrong with society. This (slightly worrying) article from the Washington Post discusses how few people actually responded negatively to what the cast and crew were doing.

After this, the film diverges from the novel somewhat. Hitler has become a huge TV star, and decides to write a book about his experiences (with the same title as the actual book). In turn, this book is turned into a film within the film. Meanwhile, Fabian is slowly realising that this might be the actual, original Hitler – a path that will not end happily.
I can’t honestly say whether I enjoyed this film. In the first section I did find myself laughing at some of Hitler’s observations on today’s world – and immediately felt bad for doing so. At the same time, I couldn’t believe how positive a response he received from the public. I began to lose interest slightly during the film-within-a-film section, but the closing sequence brought me right back down to earth. With “Hitler” riding high on the success of his book and his media presence, the film ends with clips of racially motivated protests and violence – and a suggestion that it might not be that difficult for someone of similar ideology to gain a foothold in modern society. 

There are certainly not many films that can provoke so many responses in just two hours. Er ist wieder da is set for global distribution, and I’ll be very interested to see how it is received around the world.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Film #34: Nothing Bad Can Happen / Tore tanzt

Released: 2013
Directed by: Katrin Gebbe
Original title: Tore tanzt (Tore dances)

My plan to watch loads of German films over the summer didn’t really pan out, but this week I finally managed to watch a DVD I picked up on my last trip to Germany. And it’s definitely not one to watch when you’re feeling delicate.

Tore (Julius Feldmeier) is a young member of the Jesus Freaks movement who believes his occasional seizures are caused by the Holy Spirit. Even those closest to him are amused by his complete devotion to his religion. After a chance encounter with Benno (Sascha Alexander Gersak) and his wife and two stepchildren, Tore goes to stay with them. From the outset, there are hints that Benno is not as nice as he makes out – the way his eyes linger on Sanny, his teenage stepdaughter, and his complete lack of reaction when Tore hurts himself. In the face of Tore’s unyielding faith, Benno becomes more and more determined to break him.

Tore believes that this is all God’s test, and that he must suffer whatever Benno throws at him to show Sanny that she needs to escape before it’s too late. Any hope that Benno’s friends and family might stop him before his behaviour becomes too extreme are dashed as more and more of them partake in Tore’s abuse or simply stand by and watch it happen. I found myself shouting at the screen, telling Tore to fight back, but he is adamant that it is all part of a divine plan.

I also found myself questioning my own response to Tore. If my car broke down and someone tried to help me by praying, would I smirk behind his back like Benno and his family? Is Tore stupid to keep going back to be tortured? Is Benno a monster getting his kicks from abusing a naïve and vulnerable man? Who exactly is being tested?

Although some of the more extreme violence takes place just off camera, the film does contain scenes of animal cruelty, sexual assault, degradation, and psychological and physical violence. And perhaps the most disturbing thing? The note at the end stating that the film is inspired by true events. This is also alluded to in this interview with the director, although no details are given.

I was initially under the impression that this wasn’t available with English subtitles, but it appears to have been released (at least in the US) under the title ‘Nothing Bad Can Happen’. Having watched the German version, I can’t comment on the quality of the subtitles or confirm the film’s certificate, but I would be extremely surprised if it wasn’t an 18.  

While by no means easy to watch, Tore tanzt is acted and directed with aplomb and will stay with me for quite some time.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Film #33: 13 Minutes (15)

Released: 2015
Directed by: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Original title: Elser

13 Minutes is the story of Georg Elser (Christian Friedel), who attempted to assassinate Hitler in 1939 by planting a bomb in the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich, where Hitler was due to give a speech. However, unforeseen events led to Hitler leaving the venue 13 minutes before the detonation. Elser is captured and tortured by high-ranking officials (including Arthur Nebe, who would later take part in the Stauffenberg plot) who are adamant that he couldn’t have acted alone and set out to identify his accomplices. Having initially withstood the pain, Elser begins to talk when they threaten his loved ones.

The scenes of torture, and of Elser explaining how he built the bomb, are intercut with flashbacks from his life. Working by Lake Constance as a musician and clockmaker, Elser has to return to Königsbrunn to help his alcoholic father and suffering mother. He falls in love with a married woman and watches the rise of the Nazis and the escalation of conflict in his home town. Ultimately, he decides to take matters into his own hands.

Naturally, this film contains scenes of torture, as well as hanging and domestic violence. Depending on your point of view, the effect of cutting away from the torture to Elser’s earlier life could vary – welcome respite from his suffering, or awkward cinematic device. Christian Friedel gives a great performance, and this is definitely a story worth telling, but I found this to be a fairly average film. Having said that, we get so few German films in UK cinemas that I’m not going to complain too much!

Monday, 11 May 2015

Film #32: Phoenix (12A)

Released: 2015
Director: Christian Petzold

Jewish singer Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) survives the concentration camps with horrific facial injuries that leave her requiring reconstructive surgery. While recovering with a friend, she discovers that – as the sole survivor from her family – she has inherited a large amount of money. Meanwhile, her husband Johnny is under the impression that Nelly, too, is dead, and is looking for a way to get his hands on her fortune.

When the two meet, he doesn’t recognise her as Nelly. However, he does notice the resemblance to his wife – and promptly asks Nelly to impersonate herself in order to claim and split the money. As she learns to pretend to be the wife he says she was, she starts to doubt their former relationship.

For me, the problem with this film was the central conceit. Nelly looks enough like her former self that her husband believes she can impersonate herself, yet doesn’t realise it’s actually her – even though her handwriting is identical, and even once she dyes her hair and changes her clothes! Still, if anyone can sell it, Nina Hoss can. A shattered shadow of the woman she was before falling victim to persecution, she starts to piece herself back together as Johnny tells her all about their former life together. 

Despite struggling to suspend my disbelief, by the end of the film I was desperate for Johnny to get his comeuppance and worried that Nelly might choose to go back to him. Things might not be wrapped up neatly at the end, but the final sequence had me smiling in satisfaction. I suspect this might have something to do with the quality of the central performance – in lesser hands, the whole thing could have seemed completely ludicrous.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Film #31: Good Bye Lenin! (15)

Released: 2003 
Directed by: Wolfgang Becker 

Recently, life and work have been conspiring to keep me from watching any German films, but this weekend I managed to fit in an old favourite. If you're reading this blog then there's a good chance you will have already seen Good Bye Lenin!, but it's still worth recommending. 

When Alex (Daniel Brühl) is arrested while taking part in a protest in the former East Germany, his mother has a heart attack and falls into a coma. When she wakes, she has no idea that the wall has fallen and that Germany has been reunited. When the doctors say that any shock could kill her, Alex decides to pretend that nothing has happened. Unfortunately, this proves more difficult than he imagined when all her favourite foods have disappeared from the supermarkets and Coca-Cola banners start hanging from the surrounding buildings. To keep the charade going, he ropes in his sister, family friends and his colleague Denis to film fake TV broadcasts. 

I really struggled to figure out why this was given a 15 certificate. There is practically no swearing and one very brief moment of violence between police and protestors at the start, but I have seen far worse in films with lower ratings. The only reason I can come up with is one short scene of male nudity. 

The first time I saw this film was in a cinema of Germans roaring with laughter, and while it is very funny, it certainly has a bittersweet edge. Alex and his sister have not seen their father since he fled to the west, and the film provides an insight into the personal divisions caused by the geographical divisions within Germany. Good Bye Lenin! has become one of the quintessential German films, and is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in German-language cinema.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Film #30: The Baader Meinhof Complex (18)

Released: 2008
Directed by: Uli Edel
Original title: Der Baader Meinhof Komplex

The Red Army Faction (RAF) is a part of German history about which I know very little, so I was keen to watch this film, particularly as it features some excellent German actors, including Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu and Johanna Wokalek.

The film opens with a terrifying depiction of a protest against a visit by a Middle Eastern official, which quickly escalates into violence, police brutality and a fatal shooting. Meanwhile, Rudi Dutschke of the German student movement is shot on the street. Having fled her cheating husband, left-wing journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Gedeck) soon comes into contact with Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin (Bleibtreu and Wokalek). Initially aiming to fight for a fairer society, they begin to rob banks, blow up buildings and shoot police officers. The film follows them from the initial formation of the movement through the height of their activities to their imprisonment and trial. While they sit in prison, the myth that has built up around them attracts a younger generation who move further and further away from the group’s initial objectives.

Obviously the film contains quite a bit of violence, including plenty at the hands of the police, who don’t come off particularly well either. While the focus is on the RAF, there are occasional flashes of the effects their actions had on members of the public who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the best things about the film is undoubtedly Martina Gedeck, who evolves from an intellectual with a family to a violent radical and eventually suffers under the pressure of imprisonment. Johanna Wokalek also gives a fantastic, fiery performance. 

Obviously this is a simplified version of what happened and there probably isn't anything new here for people who remember the era. Equally, there is a danger of glamourizing events for younger people who weren’t alive at the time. The other problem with fitting so many years into just over two hours is that it can be difficult to retain an overview, particularly towards the end of the film when new members keep appearing. Aside from a few key members, most of the RAF members depicted are barely even named. In a way, this reflects the gradual change in the group’s structure and methods, but some viewers could find their attention waning as they try to figure out who’s who.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Film #29: Fack ju Göhte

Released: 2013
Directed by: Bora Dağtekin 
English title: Suck Me Shakespeer 

The second German film I watched this year was also a comedy, and thankfully this one was a lot more entertaining.

After 13 months in prison, all Zeki Müller (Elyas M’Barek) wants to do is get his hands on his money, which a friend has thoughtfully buried for him … on a construction site. Only it’s not a construction site anymore, it’s the new sports hall of the local high school. So what to do? Get a job there, obviously! Hoping to replace the old janitor, Zeki somehow finds himself as the new substitute teacher. And some of the kids are in serious need of discipline …

It’s not long before swotty trainee teacher Lisi Schnabelstedt (Karoline Herfurth) discovers that he’s a fake and forces him to take over nightmare class 10b. Accustomed to scaring off normal teachers with terrible practical jokes, they certainly aren’t prepared for someone who swears at them, turns up drunk and shoots them with a paintball gun!

But while Zeki spends his nights drilling under the hall to get at his loot, he finds himself caring more and more about both Lisi and his students. Written off by his own teachers as a good-for-nothing, he decides to show them that criminality is not a good career choice and that they can achieve whatever they want. Inevitably, his true identity is eventually discovered, but it’s no surprise that things turn out well.

Obviously, comedy is very subjective and there are potentially objectionable points – deriving humour from someone drugging a woman’s drink (to steal her CV) and calling schoolchildren things like “mental defectives”. There is also a hell of a lot of swearing (the film is rated 12 in Germany). However, it's completely unrealistic, very well meaning and quite sweet - and I laughed a lot. 

The DVD I bought in Germany came with English subtitles, which do have an American slant (e.g. when talking about school grades). The only problem I could find with them actually has nothing to do with the subtitles themselves - there is a lot of slang and a recurring joke regarding German grammar, two things that are very difficult to translate. Given how quickly the characters often speak, spitting out insults in seconds, I think the subtitlers have done an admirable job.