This is the second half of this list.
51. BEWARE OF A HOLY WHORE. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore (the “whore” being Hollywood) is one of the best movies about the making of a movie. Or about not making a movie, since cast and crew are gathered at a Spanish hotel awaiting the arrival of the director, a script, and money from Munich so that they can all begin work on a gangster film starring Eddie Constantine, no less. Some couple, uncouple; some chat; some get on each other’s nerves
The protagonist is Jeff, the director. A yelling egotist and face-slapping bully, Jeff occasions Fassbinder’s witheringly funny self-parody. To compound the comedy, Fassbinder himself plays Jeff’s assistant. Both characters are remarkably self-contained and ungiving. Lou Castel is superb as Jeff. Born Ulv Quarzéll, in Bogotá, Colombia, Castel is the great star of Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket (1965) and Philippe Garrel’s The Birth of Love (1993).
Formally, the film is very beautiful. Achieving the tenor of a generalization and an artistic credo, a panning shot of the hotel lobby patiently surveys a vacancy of space before stopping on Jeff engaged in conversation. But the shot’s poignancy derives from the fact that its populated destination cannot overturn the loneliness of the transport. The camera moves to what only seems resolution. Fassbinder’s cinema is one of intense emotion—and of little hope for humanity’s lot.
Fassbinder’s characters connect without bonding. François Truffaut, in Day for Night (1973), emphasizes his love of movie-making; Fassbinder, his accuracy and integrity, as Jeff explains to a cameraman the shot he has in mind to film the next morning. Although one approaches a genre piece with caution, one could sit through what Jeff has up his artistic sleeve. This is not the case with Meet Pamela, the film-within-the-film in Day for Night.
52. LAND OF SILENCE AND DARKNESS. Fini Straubinger has been deaf and blind, the result of a fall, since her teens. She is the principal subject of Werner Herzog’s documentary Land of Silence and Darkness.
Film began as an artless visual recording device. A camera captured human activities in the range of its sight. As soon as the documentary became an art form, however, it invited carps and quarrels regarding its purity. Documentarians staged events, blending non-fiction and fiction, objectivity and subjectivity. Herzog wrote some of the lines that interviewees, including Straubinger, speak. Horrors! What else might such a control-freak do? Direct a film for which the actors have been hypnotized? (Herzog, in fact, did this: Heart of Glass, 1976.)
Documentary and non-documentary are not separate and distinct categories, but, rather, opposite poles on a single continuum of represented reality. Herzog’s camera is smart, not dumb; as artist, Herzog participates in whatever we see in his films. Like Fata Morgana (see 1969), Land of Silence and Darkness is drawn to an extreme of human existence. It is about the terrible isolation that deafness-blindness imposes and about Straubinger’s attempt to help others like herself. She overcomes her sense of isolation by helping others overcome theirs. This glorious film moves us to measure our own participation in the human community.
Four passages: Fini’s and a companion’s childlike delight during their first air flight; feeling Nature’s textures at a botanical garden; representing the League of the Blind, Fini greets a stranger, “Hello, my sister of destiny!” and tries communicating with her; a trip to the zoo, during which a monkey reaches out and pulls open the gate of the camera—a (staged?) metaphor for Fini’s risky barrier-crashing in her world and between hers and ours, with all its sights and sounds.
53. THE GOALIE’S ANXIETY AT THE PENALTY KICK. Anxiety doesn’t measure up to angst. West Germany’s Wim Wenders’ first feature is more existential than psychological. The kick the distracted goalkeeper, Josef Bloch, lets through in a soccer match gets him benched after he protests the call. His sense of ordinary reality threatens Josef’s sense of being, which demands he see himself as hero. In town, he picks up different women on two consecutive nights. He is mugged in the street before spending the night with the second of these. Violence has become accessible for Josef B.—an omnipresent possibility. In the morning, after she playfully mock-strangles him, he strangles the woman, seemingly out of the blue, and takes off. The film follows him to a provincial town, where he visits a single mother he knows and blends in with residents, occasionally pausing to keep current on the police search for the killer. A more imminent search is also under way; a mute child has been missing for days.
Based on Austrian-born Peter Handkë’s novella, the script is by two former seminarians: Handkë and Wenders. The film, a crystal-clear, unfathomable meditation on visible life and hidden dreams, weighs the consequences for humanity of a world unstructured by faith, in which self-involvement struggles to fill the void with meaning and purpose. The monotonous, insistent chords of Jürgen Knieper’s musical theme encapsulate the forces arrayed against our secret, futile dreams of heroism, and the filthy American coins in Josef’s pocket, a legacy of his team’s tour of the States, suggest the assault on the human spirit leveled by the voracious appetite of American wealth, culture and influence.
The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick comes as close as any film can to being essential for understanding a segment of the world at a particular time.
54. AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #78.
55. CRIES AND WHISPERS. Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers is, like many of his films, both beautiful and cruel.
Ravishingly cinematographed by Sven Nykvist, this one is in color. Reds, blacks and whites dominate the mise-en-scène as the film weighs the commitment of two estranged sisters to a third sister, Agnes (Harriet Andersson, heart-piercing), past the point of her death; waiting for the soul’s release, Agnes’s corpse pleads for comforting, which her sisters refuse to give her now that they can no longer bask in the glow of her living gratitude. Overmatched by ovarian cancer (the realism of Andersson’s performance is immense), Agnes cannot draw their compassion across the line of mortal trembling; but, ignorant of this rejection-to-come, in a flashback that accompanies the reading of a diary entry of hers at film’s end, she voices perfect contentment at her sisters’ loving company. Placing the other sisters beyond the pale of forgiveness (their contrast is the maidservant, beautifully played by Kari Sylwan, who does comfort Agnes in her darkest hour of need), Bergman’s contempt for them is unmistakable—this, the self-righteous posture of a man who, past 50, a year earlier refused his father’s dying request for audience on the grounds of bitter childhood memories and the fact that his father, a Lutheran priest, had been unbendingly Christian and anti-Semitic. (Does some regret, if not guilt, over his refusal to comfort his father beat behind the Cries?)
The film is precise. The camera is often placed to follow characters into a confined space; the rigorous mise-en-scène contains Bergman’s familiar overload of clocks, their ticking presence made even more oppressive from being “enlarged” by use of closeups and amplified sound, in ironic counterpoint to the secret purpose for clocks: to manage and “contain” time—humanity’s defense against an overwhelming opponent.
56. KARL MAY. What does the fate of one individual matter when one is dealing with the vast and lofty issues of the whole of humanity?
Filmmaker Helmut Käutner gives a bone-deep performance as Karl May, the nineteenth-century German author of cowboy stories and exotic adventures, whose extreme popularity came under attack by his insistence on their basis in actual experience, his alleged immorality, and his long-ago imprisonment for theft. May, defending himself against slander, became embroiled in an exhausting series of lawsuits.
Brilliantly written and directed by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Karl May opens with a flourish of artifice: a miniature village poured upon by fake snow; it is an “exterior” moment in a work whose subsequent interiority we must intuit from a series of domestic and public vignettes. Syberberg investigates the tension between the public and private May, who anticipating the modern era applied imagination to make of himself a work of fiction—life as an extension of art.
The film’s second part, “The soul is a vast land into which we all flee,” presides over the disintegration of May’s marriage into a minutely contentious divorce, during which accusations of homosexuality and lesbianism are inflicted. At his final trial May is branded a compulsive liar and criminal, but much more than this draws parallels between him and Adolf Hitler, who himself was inspired by the heroic mold of May’s writings. Syberberg exonerates May, branding Hitler (who appears in a flashforward) as the one who is responsible for Hitler, noting that no artist can bring up anything in any individual that isn’t already there. Here, Syberberg also takes aim at the masses who anointed Hitler their “hero.”
The woman who loves May tells him, “You were at the limits of human endurance . . . in the Rocky Mountains.”
57. EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF AND GOD AGAINST ALL. In 1828, a teenaged boy appears in Nuremberg. He can barely do simple things: speak, walk, eat or dress himself. He grew up locked in a dark cellar, apart from other people. A local doctor attempts to socialize and “civilize” him. Werner Herzog’s film is based on fact.
The actor playing Kaspar Hauser, Bruno S., was beaten by his prostitute mother when he was three, leaving him deaf and leading to his institutionalization, as a mental case, for a quarter-century. Cruelty traverses time, and Every Man for Himself and God Against All is a disguised biography of its star, who shares his character’s fate.
The film opens, close to Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930), with a silent scene of oceanic grass. This visual poetry associates the boy, in his innocence, with Nature and, more disturbingly, projects the “screaming silence” of his isolated, nonsocial existence. When he learns to play music, Kaspar finds it “strong in [his] heart” and feels “unexpectedly old.” The naïf questions what he hasn’t been socialized to automatically accept. He asks why women are allowed only to cook and knit—and, failing to appreciate society’s approved division of gender roles, takes up knitting himself!
We see Kaspar’s dreams. They pulsate with light, like flickering silent films. In one, a blind man leading a caravan in the desert redirects course away from the mountains he, unlike the sighted, identifies as illusions—a reference to Herzog’s Fata Morgana (see 1969). The entire film may be interpreted as a coda to Herzog’s Land of Silence and Darkness (see 1971), and this summary work also includes references to other Herzog films. Kaspar Hauser is Germany, whose cultural load Herzog now totes in his art, giving the unfortunate boy fresh tragedy and new spirit, new life.
58. EDVARD MUNCH. From Norway and Sweden, Edvard Munch essays the Norwegian painter, focusing (in flashback) on his impoverished childhood, and on his expressionism and bohemian lifestyle, including his friendship with Swedish playwright August Strindberg in Berlin. The film, by Britain’s Peter Watkins, blends scripted elements (such as voiceover narration) with improvised dialogue from its nonprofessional cast, and applies a documentary style to its biographical account. Characters, presumably being interviewed, speak directly into the camera, collapsing the difference between past and present, both in terms of time and technology.
Watkins is interested in context. The cramped, overflowing quarters beset with family sickness in which Munch grew up constitute the initial element that Watkins shows contributing to Munch’s dark, brooding, interior art. Munch is often shown painting, and one of the film’s most thrilling aspects is its sense of all the unconscious elements, in concert with those of conscious artistic purpose, that come together to help determine what Munch creates as paintbrush touches canvas. Watkins has made a film about the complex nature of the creative impulse, and Munch’s nearly compulsive scraping away of colors on his canvases becomes like a perpetual child’s—forgive—scream at the edge of a void only an adult can perceive.
Watkins also depicts, in detail, a time and place: the café society frequented by European artists and intellectuals toward the turn of the century. Watkins has correctly balanced Munch’s solitude, including his inner demons, and the rich social life, the community of artists and others (such as anarchist Hans Jaeger) to which he belonged, that fleshed out Munch’s existence. Again, the film argues that an artist’s creativity springs from both the mind and soul and the environment in which the artist’s life unfolds, and Watkins’s patient, cumulative and eclectic method does brilliant justice to this idea.
59. EFFI BRIEST. Rainer Werner Fassbinder is full of surprises. For his film version of Theodor Fontane’s 1895 novel Effi Briest, he employs a classically pure style in exquisite black and white. Beginning in 1880s Prussia, it’s a period piece.
Or is it? Henning Carlsen’s Hunger (see 1966) avoided becoming this by focusing on the humanity of its protagonist and by finding visual correlatives to the first-person narration of Hamsun’s book. Instead, Fassbinder’s dry, distanced, muted approach tends to abstract the material out of place and time. Fassbinder certainly doesn’t “milk” the costumes and décor. Rather, his precise method locates the action in particular milieus that help determine it, while simultaneously resisting any attempt by us to consign its exposure of marital and familial cruelty and narrow-mindedness to the past. Fassbinder achieves something akin to a universal parable. An idea that might never have occurred to me were it not for this film is how arranged marriages, with all the peril these entail, still sometimes exist in the West—only, instead of being parentally arranged, “arranged” by the marital participants themselves. Even today, love isn’t always the principal motivating factor.
For Effi, her husband’s conviction that she has been unfaithful deprives her of her parental home, as refuge, as well as her marital home, suggesting that the latter, always, was an ideological extension of the former. Effi never was anything but property—property that changes hands.
In her first great performance, Hanna Schygulla makes Effi a portrait of intense loneliness and feeling useless. Effi is between a rock and a hard place, prevented from becoming a self-determining individual and cut off from the family ties that might have ameliorated this alienated state. Nineteenth century? Without a doubt—and very much closer than that for the rest of us.
60. FEAR EATS THE SOUL. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul opens with a great deep focus shot, from which we infer that Emmi Kurowski, a dumpy, middle-aged widow (Brigitte Mira, marvelous), is the object of considerable attention when she walks through the door of a bar that Arab immigrants patronize. Emmi is looking to get out of the downpour outside, but she is also drawn by the Arab music that is strange to her playing on the jukebox. She strikes up a conversation, and a friendship, with Ali, who is from Morocco. Ali and Emmi are lonely, he, because he is separated from family, she, because her family—three married children—“live their own lives” locally, ignoring her except on holidays.
Emmi is without prejudice, but, apparently, she is the only one. Her growing relationship with a younger black man invites disdainful comments from neighbors, co-workers, and family members, who are suddenly concerned about Mother now that she and Ali plan to marry. Upon hearing the news, one of Emmi’s sons kicks in the television set.
Inspired by Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), Fassbinder’s tragicomedy shows how little we sometimes care about others and “live and let live.” Why should people busy themselves with obstructing the happiness of others? Perhaps they are terrified that the world should in any way not reflect what they are most familiar with. Perhaps they feel so bereft of power and autonomy that they must intrude where they can, even at the expense of others.
Bigotry is exposed as a security blanket, a means of asserting some bit of control over a vast reality, a way of countering, however tentatively, the fear that eats the soul. But Emmi chooses another way of doing this: love.
61. THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM. Brilliantly written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta and Volker Schlöndorff, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, or: How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead is an assault on the contemporary West German yellow press, showing the dire, even fatal consequences for innocent lives wrought by tabloid smears. From Heinrich Böll’s novel, it reflects the author’s own run-ins with Bild Zeitung.
Katharina Blum, a young maid who is completely apolitical, spends the night with a man she meets at a party. He is an anarchist. The police storm into her apartment the next morning and, in the absence of their main target, arrest her instead. A tabloid, The Paper, does the rest, smearing her as a politically motivated slut. Von Trotta and Schlöndorff intriguingly connect the police and the press, showing how the latter’s inapt democratic claims of “freedom of the press” distract from the former’s fascistic tactics and their own deutsche mark-chasing opportunism. Here, in the States, we speak of the media’s “feeding frenzy,” its steamrolling appetite for more and more “news” to keep a “story” current, which is to say, solvent. However, the monstrous activity this film portrays, however frenzied it may appear in the aggregate, is too calculatedly cruel and vicious to justify the term. Blum herself remarks that her ordeal, to which the authorities and the press contributed, robbed her of her honor. She ends up in a frame of mind that her existence previous to the ordeal could not have predicted.
Angela Winkler is wonderful in the lead role, especially when Katharina’s mother pays the ultimate price for her daughter’s misfortunes. Indeed, the entire cast, which includes a superb Heinz Bennent as a sympathetic lawyer, is flawless.
62. IN THE COURSE OF TIME. Apart from Herzog’s Aguirre, the most magnificent West German film of the 1970s is In the Course of Time, Wim Wenders nearly three-hour road movie about an itinerant film projectionist, Bruno, who, along the West-East German border, visits expiring cinemas in small villages—a reflection of a culture evaporating as a result of changes wrought by time, current collusive film distribution practices, and American popular culture influence. Along the way, Bruno gives a ride to Robert, a pediatrician whose marriage and own vehicle have collapsed. They encounter a suicide’s widower, precipitating certain decisions of their own and eventually contributing to the dissolution of their growing bond. Like Federico Fellini’s great road movie, La strada (1954), Wenders’ signature epic is about will-o’-the-wisps, uprooted and rootless humanity amidst a mesmerizing landscape under an illimitable sky that, especially at night, sparkles with an omnipresent sense of eternity. Misleadingly, in the States and Britain the film is called Kings of the Road.
Wenders’ film is imbued with two dual senses: the frailty and infinite worth of human lives; aimlessness or restlessness, and mission or purpose—improvisation amid the playing-out of individual destinies. One episode that crystallizes both these dual senses finds Bruno and Robert conjuring a clown act for raucous schoolchildren eagerly anticipating their annual movie.
Few films more beautifully captivate with a tragic sense of the passage of time. The film’s deceptively leisurely pace conveys the weight of humanity’s persistent mortal awareness. Time is the “king” of this road, and everything that happens happens in the course of time.
Wenders’ most important collaborators for his most heartfelt and inexhaustible ride are his black-and-white cinematographer, Robby Müller, and his lead actor, his patient Everyman, Rüdiger Vogler, who plays Bruno.
63. THE LEFT-HANDED WOMAN. We all think we know why Nora leaves husband, home and children, even though Henrik Ibsen’s remark that she shouldn’t have done this in his 1879 A Doll’s House contradicts the feminist readings of the play currently in vogue. Based on his novel, Peter Handkë’s The Left-Handed Woman gives us even less ground to stand on. In Paris, the woman quits her spouse for no apparent reason, giving no explanation. And, mind you, the nice man she is married to even looks like Bruno Ganz!
What Handkë has cryptically written and austerely, beautifully directed makes no claim to interiority. It shows, among other things, the unfathomability of motivation and the soul’s perpetual desire for solitude, especially now, in the modern era, when the falling-away of religion as a guiding institution no longer shields us from this desire and the necessity, somehow, to confront the void of human existence. If only the woman had been right-handed! As it is, she is left to her own devices—as are we, who are intent on grasping her.
The film doesn’t end, as does Ibsen’s play, with the protagonist’s leave-taking; her solitary journey, whatever it amounts to, accounts for the principal action. It draws us—where? Not in, but out, so that, in the darkened theater as we watch the film, we also confront what the woman does. It is the miraculous nature of Handkë’s achievement that this point of reluctant identification by us is enrobed in layers of distancing, fixing each of us in our separate solitude rather than admitting us into the woman’s. As nineteenth-century poet Matthew Arnold put it, “We mortal millions live alone.”
Handkë’s two great collaborators are color cinematographer Robby Müller and actress Edith Clever, whose performance as the woman is among cinema’s most brilliant.
64. OUR HITLER. Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s 7½-hour Hitler—ein Film aus Deutschland bombards eye and mind with a staggering vision of Nazism. The non-narrative film fuses Wagnerian opera, political cabaret, wax figures, German film references and fairy-tale mythology (“the World Ice Spirit . . . rebirth . . . master race”), starry heavenly vistas, paintings, speeches, songs, lectures, voiceover, assorted set-pieces to penetrate the fascist German psyche.
Imagined interviews of “men in the street”—those who “elected” Hitler—collapse time and blur the line between history and imagination, finding Hitler at their crossroads. Hitler filled a need for faith in one’s discredited, demoralized nation; he loomed as a god demanding self-sacrifice that appealed to the German appetite for self-debasement.
One remarkable segment: Does it correspond to actuality by dint of metaphor or historical accuracy? What revelation either way! Dressed as Caligari (see 1919), an actor lectures us, describing the schools for boys that the Nazis instituted. Hitler loved birds, he tells us, and, because cats eat birds, as part of their “education” schoolboys gouged out the eyes of cats. Darwin’s Nature is thus translated into politics “red in tooth and claw,” and self-pity and cruelty, both monstrously enlarged, become indistinguishable. Syberberg’s Caligari proceeds to draw the Nazi identification of Jews with rats.
Another segment draws upon past German cinema: Syberberg redoes the scene in Fritz Lang’s M (see 1931) in which Peter Lorre’s child-rapist/killer breaks down, explaining to the court that he cannot help doing what he does, that he is in the grip of a compulsion beyond his means to resist. In the new version, the man is a Nazi protesting his inability to resist his own politics! On second thought, though, we may wonder whether this constitutes a reimagined M or a critical analysis of M. What revelation either way!
65. WAYS IN THE NIGHT. The year before making his masterpiece at home, The Constant Factor, Poland’s most brilliant filmmaker, Krzysztof Zanussi, wrote and directed Ways in the Night for West German television.
During World War II, a German officer falls in love with a Polish baroness whose castle his unit is occupying. The woman remains scornfully nonresponsive until she begins manipulating the young man toward her own ends. In truth, they are both occupied—she, literally, as a Pole at the mercy of German invaders; he, by the Nazi programme he represents, however much it grates against his decency.
Zanussi, who would go to Monument Valley to conclude his Year of the Quiet Sun (1984), reveres his John Ford, whose The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) provides the structural model for Ways in the Night. A contemporary narrative frame encases the wartime material, each in a sense occupying the other, each releasing into the other a store of import and feeling. The flashback correlates to the memory of none of the characters; it is objective and historical, and yet it projects all the turbulence of war, invasion, occupation and thwarted love. On the other hand, both abstracting (that is, generalizing) and sharpening the irony of a German’s loving a Pole who cannot help but despise him, the present-day frame shows a future generation, while resolute in its indifference to the past, sleepwalking in the might-have-been couple’s shadow: the war is not over.
The rich, spectral darkness of the nighttime images in the extended flashback, with their prussian and other deep blues, creates a double sense familiar to Fordians: a haunted past now populated by ghosts and the past haunting the present.
Despite Zanussi regular Maja Komorowska’s bravura performance as the baroness, Zanussi’s preeminent collaborator is his phenomenal color cinematographer, Witold Sobocinski.
66. THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun evokes West German history—from its state of rubble under an obtuse, hypocritical American occupation to its rise from the ashes of defeat—through the upward mobility of an independent woman armed with wit, business savvy, perseverance, and prodigious promiscuity. Hermann, her husband, was a Russian prisoner of war who is presumed dead.
Cunning, painstakingly crafted, Fassbinder’s rich canvas includes oblique, discreet mise-en-scène, and faces reflected in snatches of mirror: the portrait of an extended family fractured and burdened with national guilt. A black marketeer provides an ambitious Maria Braun (Hanna Schygulla, ravishing and brilliant) with the low-cut dress that will set her fortunes amidst Americans, one of whom becomes her lover and teaches her English, knowing which helps ensure her success. When her husband unexpectedly returns, Maria kills her lover. Hermann takes the fall when the occupation court insults his wife by translating her precise German expressing her powerful love for him into cold, unfeeling, indiscriminate English. It’s a “bad time for feelings.”
While Hermann languishes in prison, Maria proves indispensable to a German company doing international business, becoming the owner’s partner at work and in bed. Maria becomes rich. “I’m a master of deceit,” she says during management-union negotiations; “a capitalist tool by day, by night an agent of the proletarian masses. I am the Mata Hari of the ‘economic miracle.’” She embodies the opportunism greasing its wheels.
After Hermann’s prison release, at least Maria, perhaps both, go up in smoke from a kitchen gas explosion while the radio raucously announces Germany’s victory (against Hungary) in a world championship soccer match. Maria Braun’s flaming fate, with its echo of wartime bombing and the Holocaust, underscores the suffering and anguish, buried, supporting West German socioeconomic progress.
67. THE TIN DRUM. Günter Grass helped with the script for Volker Schlöndorff’s West German film of Grass’s 1959 novel about Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent, son of Heinz Bennent, superb), who, fully intelligent since birth, decides on his third birthday not to advance beyond that age, to remain a “gnome,” given the state of the world. (Oskar takes a deliberate tumble down stairs, injuring his spine, in order to achieve his goal.) The setting is Danzig in the 1920s, where Germans and Poles live together in hostility, presaging Europe’s future. The shadow of the world war recently ended portends another horrifying world war as Nazism gathers political steam.
So, Oskar is a loveable blighted innocent attempting to withstand the tide of the times? No; he is a perfect terror, alternating between sullenness and aggressive obnoxiousness, practicing occultish gifts and, on occasion, fiercely resembling a little Nazi himself. He bangs on his tin drum in protest of the corrupt, nasty world he sees (but doesn’t his possessiveness of the drum mirror the bourgeois values that irk him?) and shatters glass with his scream. Who can resist being stamped by political currents and cross-currents? Our imagination and conviction are inadequate to keep any of us from being a child of our place and time.
Schlöndorff’s film is a marvelous, colorful allegory, a rich symbolical tapestry of surrealistic weirdness and fantasy, farce and tragedy, constituting a pilgrim’s non-progress of perpetual protest as no one listens to Oskar and the world around him sinks ever deeper into social and political insanity. Of course, we listen—Oskar narrates his life-story—but, already knowing that his concerns are prophetic, we are as powerless to change history as Oskar is to avert it.
In a huge supporting cast, Charles Aznavour pierces as a Jewish toy store owner.
68. BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ. Expressionism and naturalism inhabit different universes, but in Arthur Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, and in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s moody, underlit 15½-hour film version originally made for West German television, they intersect. Chronicling the struggles of an Everyman, Franz Bieberkopf, to survive in depressed 1928 Berlin after he is released from prison for killing his girl, Fassbinder’s masterpiece finds humanity mirroring the disintegrating social order.
His landlady perceived sufficient goodness in Bieberkopf to hold his apartment for him for the four years he has been away. Bieberkopf isn’t after the moon. He wants to get a decent job (“I’m not much of a guy for luxury”), but this proves impossible. Tempted by the satanic Reinhold Hoffmann (Gottfried John, brilliant), Franz pimps, steals, and distributes pamphlets for a lunatic fringe group now gathering political steam: the National Socialists.
Loss of an arm, the result of his being pushed out of a car into traffic by his criminal compatriot, sums up Bieberkopf’s fate as a continual subjugation to forces one can neither predict nor control. Bieberkopf is a faithless, criminal Job enduring life as best he can—what humanity has been reduced to. Promise of happiness, though, comes in the form of Mieze (Barbara Sukowa, heartrending), a prostitute whose sweet devotion calms Bieberkopf’s emotional storms; but then Mieze also is taken from him, by the same fate that took away his arm.
Günter Lamprecht, as Franz, gives a titanic, seamless performance, showing in this unpleasant man’s experience the plight of the downtrodden.
Fassbinder’s achievement may be most trenchant in the chapter “A Handful of People in the Depths of Silence.” On the other hand, it is weakest in a superfluous coda, the homoerotic phantasmagoria with which Fassbinder concludes his complex, absorbing vision. But by that time, he can be forgiven anything.
69. SHEER MADNESS. Margarethe von Trotta’s brilliant, coolly analytical Sheer Madness explores the relation to society of the connection between two women: divorced university professor Olga (Hanna Schygulla, at her peak) and painter Ruth (Angela Winkler), who lives with spouse Franz—following her suicide attempt and breakdown, a watchful, solicitous near-guardian. Franz objects when Ruth replaces him as her confidante with Olga. Having determined a pecking order of relationships based on male domination, which Ruth’s new friendship challenges, society also objects.
Initially, Franz must overcome Olga’s resistance in his solicitation of her to become Ruth’s friend. A flattering self-image as being loving, caring, unselfish: Franz is free to enjoy this while “setting up” the friendship, but how quickly it empties, leaving him unexpectedly defenseless, once Ruth and Olga’s friendship passes out of his control and assumes a life of its own. Insisting it is Olga who is a threat to her, the man protecting his spouse now becomes her unprotector. Franz’s sense of well-being, unwittingly, has always depended on Ruth’s lack of well-being and on her total reliance on him.
Von Trotta uses a subjective camera when Ruth has disappeared from the country place where she and Olga have just met. What appears to our eye is a fluent roaming exploration of a labyrinthine darkness. In fact, the camera is recording Olga’s search for Ruth, which indeed locates her. We may even say that Ruth hides in order that Olga might find her.
Olga and Ruth visit Egypt. It is an interlude they share away from the male-biased social strictures that normally contain and disadvantage them. They are on holiday, a spiritual quest entirely of their own, unfettered by male carping, crabbing and disruption. This journey runs a stream of quiet poignancy through the center of the film.
70. FLIGHT OF THE EAGLE. This chronicle of Swedish engineer Salomon August Andrée’s 1897 North Polar expedition using a French hydrogen balloon, available in the States only in a trimmed, dubbed version, is Jan Troëll’s greatest achievement—an epic account of three men’s tragic attempt to make history for their nation. “There will always be a risk,” Andrée concedes to an assembly of colleagues before the launch. “But let me ask that you weigh the risk against Sweden’s glory.” Troëll’s theme of insane European aspiration—the colonialist impulse—becomes clear when someone likens the imminent flight of The Eagle, to conquer the North Pole, to southern Europe’s conquests in Africa.
To begin with, what a fresh approach to such material—what a boon alongside so many uncritical, most often adulatory films about humans trying to be the first here, to accomplish this, that or the other there. Andrée and his crew persevere and show phenomenal courage as they wither away and die amidst freezing cold and ice, in image after image of ghastly beauty. (Troëll is the color cinematographer.) But none of this (if you will) heroism distracts us from the madness of the mission in the first place. Right now, the United States is having a hard time distinguishing between the valor of many American soldiers in Iraq, often expressed as the homefront obligation to “support our troops,” and the incredible wrongness and vileness of the American invasion. Troëll’s stunning film refreshes our capacity to make the distinction.
“God and Country,” “Long live Sweden!”: these are the mantras we hear from the crew that seal their doom. Shafts of memory—flashbacks—poignantly reflect on what these pioneers have forsaken.
Max von Sydow gives a wonderful performance as Andrée, and it’s his irreplaceable voice we hear in the English-dubbed version.
71. CLASS RELATIONS. Franz Kafka’s posthumously published Amerika is faithfully rendered here, even to the point of being left unfinished, by the married writing-directing-editing team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. Straub and Huillet aren’t as funny as Kafka and are working from a text that Kafka would have tightened (and perhaps filled in) had he returned at some point to this early fragment of his, but they achieve a transcendent result, exploring the class- and status-determined politics of human relations in pristine black and white. Their film blends realism and surrealism, documentary and fiction.
“Amerika” is an America of the European imagination. Kafka himself never visited the country in which his story, without reference to specific time, is set. Police officers there look like silent Hollywood’s Keystone Kops.
The protagonist is teenaged Karl Rossman (Christian Heinisch, excellent), who has immigrated from Kafka’s own Prague to New York, where he is eventually tossed out by his uncle (ubiquitous Mario Adorf) and cast adrift in a chaotic, cruel, capricious world based on capital and power. Like the book, the film is absurdist, enmeshing the youth, another one of Kafka’s self-projections, in a seemingly endless puzzle of disadvantage and uncertainty.
This pilgrim’s progress is eventually Oklahoma-bound, where, with a nod to Pirandello, a theatrical troupe awaits Karl—as in Bergman, a dream within a dream.
In a sense, Karl is lost somewhere in his own mind, and even this most private aspect of existence is heavily imprinted by the politics and economics of the world outside. Dissolved is the barrier of sanity—where one can get one’s bearings—betwixt interior and exterior worlds. Whereas Kafka (like David Lynch) is more intuitive than intellectual, Straub and Huillet are more intellectual than intuitive. This rounds out the Kafka, in effect completing Amerika without extending the story.
72. THE ELEMENT OF CRIME. The first installment in his dark “European trilogy,” Lars von Trier’s The Element of Crime is among the most sorrowful crime detection works in cinema—a film in which murder weighs heavily as the loss of human life, not as an entertaining occasion for crime-solving ingenuity. Summoned by Osborne, his mentor, ex-cop Fischer investigates the serial murders of young girls selling lottery tickets. Proceeding “by the book,” in this case, Osborne’s treatise on criminal behavior, and assisted by hypnosis that projects him into the killer’s mind, Fischer retraces the steps of a suspect based on past police surveillance of him.
The suspect’s name is Harry Gray, an amalgamation of David Gray, who investigates vampires in a remote seaside village in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s—Trier’s idol’s—Vampyr (see 1931), and The Third Man’s (Carol Reed, 1949) postwar opportunist, a black marketeer in penicillin, Harry Lime. These influences suggest the weird, hallucinatory, post-apocalyptic world of bombed-out buildings, scrounging children, and sleepwalking souls through which Fischer moves as in a nightmare. It’s Noir City. Also, partly because something again is rotten in the state of Denmark (or in whatever Scandinavian post the action unfolds), Hamlet is in the heavy air. After all, what is Fischer doing but trying to vindicate Osborne, his surrogate father?
Trier, who enacts the hilarious role of the Schmuck of Ages, and his color cinematographer, Tom Elling, have given the film a strange, haunted look, partly the result of saturating the negative with gold. A glimmer of light may insinuate itself into a bottomlessly dark frame. We feel we are looking into the end of the world, a disintegrating society populated by desperate lives. How can anybody be killing all these children?
Stay tuned. Trier’s brilliant trilogy has only just begun.
73. ROSA LUXEMBURG. The co-founder (with Karl Liebknecht) of the movement that two years hence, in 1918, evolved into the German Communist Party, Rosa Luxemburg was murdered en route to prison in 1919. Jewish, Russian Polish, and middle-class by birth, and German by marriage, Rosa was a Marxist journalist and lawyer committed to worker activism and worker rights, believing that socialism required democracy. In turn, Lenin and Stalin repudiated her no less than the German establishment did, and part of the legacy of her death was the weakening of her Party, thus facilitating the rise in Germany of Adolf Hitler, whose National Socialism courted the economically disaffected, many of whom might otherwise have gravitated toward her message and cause.
Margarethe von Trotta’s film about Rosa’s political struggles is sober, restrained, and cumulatively very powerful. It also adheres to a conventional form, eschewing the addition of cinematic controversy to its already incendiary subject matter. The film begins in 1916, in Wronke Prison, and flashes back to 1900, with socialists anticipating a century of achievement to follow a previous century of hope. It essays in spirited, if not quite probing, detail Rosa’s intense involvement in socialist causes. It shows Rosa as being, as she puts it, hard on herself and others.
The film is particularly adept in portraying the volatile relationship between Rosa and her longtime lover, Leo Jogiches, who arranged for the publication of her collected works before also being murdered in 1919. It shows Rosa’s disdaining martyrdom because she found it sentimental and bourgeois. It makes perfect sense out of Rosa’s opposition to World War I yet ceaseless advocacy of mass labor strikes and proletarian violence inside and outside Russia.
Von Trotta’s chief asset is her star. Barbara Sukowa’s Rosa Luxemburg is among cinema’s most intelligent and passionate performances.
74. THE SACRIFICE. It is Alexander’s birthday. On his luxuriant grounds the journalist, accompanied by his toddler, whom a sore throat has rendered temporarily mute, plants a tree to mark the occasion, all the while chattering on, as much to himself as to his son. A friend, dropping by, asks, “Do you know that Gandhi had a day each week when he didn’t speak?”
At his party, bombers overhead signal the fact that World War III has broken out. Alexander will offer his newly planted tree and himself as an offering to God for the safekeeping of his family and—dare he hope?—civilization, represented here by family and friends (and, by extension, us), Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Leonardo’s Adoration of the Three Kings, a reproduction of which adorns one of Alexander’s walls.
Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky, agnostic/atheist and religionist, were a mutual admiration society. For his third film outside the Soviet Union, which he had fled, Tarkovsky went to Bergman’s island refuge, borrowed Bergman collaborators, including cinematographer Sven Nykvist and Erland Josephson, who plays Alexander, and made his most Bergmanian film. Befitting a work by Tarkovsky, though, The Sacrifice is deeply spiritual as well as moral and psychological. It includes anguished “chamber” scenes that might belong to either artist, but also slow, solemn, profoundly moving tracking shots and pans, outdoors, that are unmistakably Tarkovsky. Mud, water, discarded objects: to these familiar features of Tarkovsky landscape the lush green of the opening scene eventually yields. The shot of a small, abandoned chair haunts and devastates.
Tarkovsky knew he was dying of cancer when he made this film. He worried about the world he was leaving and hoped for its salvation. Artistically, The Sacrifice is his heartfelt last will and testament.
75. WINGS OF DESIRE. A shimmering, ecstatic, poignant embrace of the joys and sorrows of being human, Wings of Desire provides an unusual perspective on the matter. Above postwar, divided Berlin, Damiel and Cassiel, two angels from the beginning of time, hover and invisibly descend, floating about and through buildings and people, penetrating people’s thoughts, including their deepest worries, at one point laying a gentle hand on the shoulder of a young man who is contemplating suicide—and who does commit suicide. Each in its sphere, human or angel, is limited, but angels at least do not die.
But one day Damiel (Bruno Ganz, wonderful) espies a beauteous circus acrobat and becomes a dissatisfied angel. Now he wants to be human, to experience human love. Becoming mortal would be worth it. Born to the human round, we better appreciate the gift of life and death through Damiel’s fresh eyes and senses. And the world is more magical and spiritual than we imagined, because Damiel isn’t the only former angel among us. Another one, for instance, is Peter Falk playing himself—and giving his finest performance.
“I wonder if she is Jewish,” Falk muses as he sketches an elderly woman. Falk is himself Jewish. For all we know, the Holocaust survivor whose thoughts the angels hear might also once have been an angel. Great suffering, as well as great happiness, comes with the human lot.
The universe the angels perceive is in austere, timeless, blue-tinted monochrome, suggesting silent cinema; the world that humans see, in full color, is sensual and vibrant. Henri Alëkan (Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast) contributes astonishing cinematography.
Wim Wenders beautifully directed from one of cinema’s finest scripts, by himself and Peter Handkë—two former seminarians who know a thing or two about angels who have risen to earth.
76. MEDEA. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1970 Medea is barbaric, fantastic, political, anthropological. Its theme is cultural collision. Lars von Trier’s version has to contend with an anxiety of influence other than that of Euripedes (or Marx). It is based on a script that fellow Dane, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Trier’s idol, left unfilmed at his death. Moodily poetic and psychological, it shows the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky, especially his Nostalghia (1982). To the eye and the soul, in whatever connection, it’s a beautiful film.
Here is perhaps the world’s most famous tale of a woman’s revenge—in ancient Greece, Medea’s murder of their sons after Jason abandons her and them and takes another wife. Medea’s magic brought Jason riches and fame, and the Golden Fleece. But he is “moving on” with his life, as cranky, restless spouses sometimes do. Medea gave Jason stature but relinquished much of her own in the process. Now it is her day to inflict sorrow. By Medea’s design, Jason will be married to a corpse, and his children, hanged with their mother’s tender assistance, will be corpses as well. Medea must settle for nothing less than Jason’s devastation.
But, of course, the overwhelming tragedy is Medea’s. The children do not deserve to die, but cosmic justice, for which Medea is mere agency, demands these deaths. The one constant is Medea’s suffering—a mother’s pain as well as a wife’s.
Trier’s visual poetry stresses Medea’s—a mother’s—continuing connection to Nature. Nonsensical interpretations, to the effect that Medea, a mother, errs by destroying her children, need not apply. It is self-righteous Jason who alone acts contrary to Nature. Only death can bring Medea peace.
Judgments against Medea fade in the vast marsh and fog in which Trier locates/loses her. She is lost along with the rest of us.
77. ARIEL. A brilliant tragicomedy of the discontinuous lives of the working poor, Ariel is the second part of Aki Kaurismäki’s “proletarian trilogy.” Taisto Kasurinen’s unhappy lot in life, we are given to understand, was set prior to the film’s action and will continue beyond its completion. At the outset, the closing of a coal mine deprives him and his father of their jobs; the latter gives Taisto the keys to his convertible and announces his intention of committing suicide. Taisto doesn’t believe he will do this, even after he brandishes a gun, for the simple reason that he has not already done this in a perpetually hard, unfair life. But we hear the offscreen shot and see Taisto looking down at his father’s body, which remains out of camera range. What we see reflects what Taisto sees, because we see him and his fate reflects his father’s.
Taisto, on the road, is beaten and robbed. He becomes a day laborer and sleeps at night in a mission flophouse. Nights are as black as oil. He meets Irmeli Pihlaja, who gives up her job monitoring illegal parking ticketing cars in exchange for dinner, and has sex with him. “I hated [my ex-husband] from the start.” Taisto: “That’s unusual.” Irmeli: “That’s what you think.” The two, along with Irmeli’s self-sufficient young son, become a family. Irmeli takes a factory job cutting meat.
But the law puts Taisto in prison after he runs across one of the men who robbed him and he tries taking back some of his money. With Irmeli’s help, he escapes, and the three plan on fleeing aboard the Mexico-bound Ariel under a mockingly gorgeous, dusky blue sky. We hear “Over the Rainbow” sung in Finnish and recall Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ill-fated schooner, Ariel.
78. EPIDEMIC. Save Vampyr (see 1931), by another Dane, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Lars von Trier’s Epidemic may be the greatest horror film ever made. It is certainly among the most playful and visually fetching horror films.
It’s pseudo-cinéma-vérité—a film-within-a-film the boundaries of whose Chinese boxes bend and blur. A film director named Lars (endearingly played by Lars von Trier) and his scenarist, Niels (played by Trier’s actual co-scenarist, Niels Vørsel), dream up a medical horror movie, in the dream of which Dr. Mesmer (Trier again), an epidemiologist, battles a disease that in fact he unwittingly spreads. Both films are in black and white; but the objective framing film is shot in 16mm, while the interior dream of a film is shot in luxuriant 35mm. The phenomenal cinematography is by Henning Bendtsen, who photographed Dreyer’s Ordet (see 1954).
The dream is a nightmare of reality; talk of “mass graves” invokes specters of two world wars, the Holocaust, and the threat of annihilation imposed on us all by the examples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, the framing film, in which the plague ultimately erupts with the assistance of hypnosis, seems to be catching up with the interior film.
Irrepressibly funny and absolutely terrifying, Epidemic locates individual imagination in the grip of shared political realities. We cannot get away from our worst dreams, our worst imaginings, because they are real and because the paranoid U.S. is ever poised to drop at a whim another stupendous bomb. Art, our principal defense, only returns us to reality. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark because something is rotten elsewhere in the world. Europe exists in a colossal shadow.
This is the second entry in Trier’s “European trilogy” begun with The Element of Crime (see 1984).
79. HERDSMEN OF THE SUN. Before the precipitous decline in the quality of his work that began in the 1990s, Werner Herzog made one final beautiful film for French television. The French-West German co-production is Herdsmen of the Sun, a documentary about the Wodaabe people who live at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. Herzog’s opening commentary claims that the expansion of the desert has radically decreased the Wodaabes’ living space, imperiling their existence. In addition, a recent drought has devastated their numbers.
Herzog’s claim that the Wodaabes consider themselves the earth’s most beautiful people is followed by a continuous hand-held shot of a long line of Wodaabes, their faces bedecked in colorful makeup, their eyes and smiles widened and pronounced (presumably to enhance the Wodaabes’ beauty, according to their own concept of beauty), accompanied on the soundtrack by Gounod’s “Ave Maria”—one of the weirdest shots in creation. These are male Wodaabes! This shot is followed by a similar one of a line of Wodaabe women, who appear, by contrast, unadorned and subdued.
A long passage—is it real, or is it Herzog?—depicts an annual festival in which eligible young men make themselves up into what they consider painted images of beauty to attract women who choose whom they want for mates. We feel we have entered a parallel universe headier and more fascinating than that in The Matrix.
Perhaps inspired by Robert J. Flaherty’s films, Herzog suggests at the last that the African nomads are a fragile group poised for extinction. However, this nearly elegiac note may be a sentimental add-on; the particularity with which Herzog has portrayed these people and their sometimes exotic customs either imputes to them a terrific resilience or, by doing so, ironically deepens the poignancy of what may be their imminent doom.
80. IMAGES OF THE WORLD AND THE INSCRIPTION OF WAR. The objective nature of photographic images is probed in this brilliant West German documentary by Harun Farocki. Such images, Farocki’s cinematic essay suggests, bear the subjectivity of the political uses to which they are put at one end and the subjectivities of human reception and perception at the other. Indeed, something else predates either of these mediations: manipulations of reality that generate those appearances which images then proceed to memorialize. In wartime, factories producing necessary equipment, for instance, are camouflaged to fool aerial reconaissance into generating photographs in which the factories appear to be ordinary residences.
Such photographs were inadvertently taken of Auschwitz during the last world war. This was April 1944, when Allied reconaissance was searching instead for factories, chemical plants, etc., that is, bombing targets in order to fell the Nazi war effort. The aerial photographs were ignored as revealing nothing relevant; only in the mid-1970s, when they were discovered in CIA files and scrutinized from the vantage of considerable knowledge of the death camps, were they correctly deciphered. Farocki compares this “outside,” “objective” view with an “inside,” personal view aiming at objectivity: drawings of Auschwitz by Jewish prisoner Alfred Kantor. The photographs are also compared to Nazi photographs of Auschwitz.
We may fetishize the photograph—and, more generally, technology. Farocki mockingly prefaces the Auschwitz material with the case of Albrecht Meydenbauer, a nineteenth-century architect who, in order to safely deduce measurements of a church, relied on still photographs from which a scale model presumably could be constructed.
Farocki’s associative method may seem at times to want coherence, but his stunning Images is tightly constructed without appearing to be—a strategy to avoid imposing on the viewer just the sort of quantifiable “truth” the film seeks to penetrate.
81. THE WALL. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #89.
82. THE MATCH FACTORY GIRL. The conclusion of Finnish writer-director-editor Aki Kaurismäki’s “proletariat trilogy,” Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö, opens with a brilliantly edited passage recording working-class dehumanization. Various machines, each alienatingly noisy, are shown operating at a match stick factory; not a single worker is visible. (Sounds throughout the film are preternaturally loud.) Finally we see Iris (Kati Outinen, wonderful), alone, performing quality control on an assembly line conveying boxed matches. When she leaves, no conversation passes between her and the one co-worker we see. Home, Iris cooks for Mother and Stepfather; no words pass among them. The human voice we finally hear belongs to a television news anchor noting the Tiananmen Square massacre. A man sings a rather hopeless love song at a dance, where Iris, unpicked, remains alone on a bench. She sleeps alone. “A small beer”: before silently reading magazines, including at a laundromat, Iris makes this modest purchase.
Aki Kaurismäki’s suspenseful, bleak, concise, very funny comedy finds Iris turning over the remainder of her paycheck to her parents after buying herself a red dress and black shawl. Her stepfather slaps her resoundingly across the face; her mother instructs her to return the dress. She looks adorable in the outfit at a nightclub, though, where a man, Aarne, mistaking her for a prostitute (despite her restrained makeup, unassuming demeanor), silently dances with her before taking her home. He leaves money; she leaves Aarne a note, signing it “Iris.” We now know her name.
Iris writes Aarne, who is white collar, a long, warm letter informing him she is pregnant; he sends a check along with the note, “Get rid of it.” Accidentally she does—when (offscreen) she is hit by a screeching car. At hospital, Stepfather evicts her. Iris buys rat poison, exacts revenge all around.
83. EUROPA. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #90.
84. GERMANY YEAR NINE ZERO. A sequel of sorts to his 1965 Alphaville, a futuristic rendering of Paris in the grip of fascism, Jean-Luc Godard’s Germany Year Nine Zero takes its title from Rossellini’s film about Berlin in World War II’s aftermath (see 1947). The French-German co-production also looks ahead to Godard’s masterpiece, In Praise of Love (2001), about habitual memory—the completion of this unofficial trilogy.
Back on Earth from Alphaville, Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine again) visits Germany. The occasion is the fall of the Berlin Wall. Godard surveys the past and worries about the future, both (geo)politically and cinematically, now that borders are blurring and transnational corporate interests are emerging as the decisive power in determining the course of people’s lives and what art can be produced.
The film alternates between color and black and white. One black-and-white shot portrays a wasteland from which smoke seems to be rising—Time’s exhalation. Another shot shows a discarded street sign on the ground: Karl Marx Street. The Wall’s fall represents, Caution explains, Marx’s triumph: “When an idea trickles down to the masses, it becomes a physical force.” This irony collapses, though, amidst black-and-white inserts of Nazi Germany, including a massive pro-Hitler street demonstration. It is history—the connections between Germany’s Nazi past, the postwar division of Germany and the Wall’s construction—that may vanish from the tearing down of the Wall. Goethe: “Out of darkness you cannot create light.”
Godard weighs the current world’s Faustian bargains. At what price of historical memory come the dismantling of the Wall and Germany’s reunification? At what price comes the worldwide tyranny of commercial cinema?
Blending fictional and documentary elements, this amazing film is stamped with haunted memory, the exquisite elegiac sense that has become an indefatigable part of Godard’s signature as humanist artist.
85. TIRED COMPANIONS: FIVE STORIES FROM THE WAR. Episodic, correlative to the fragmented former Yugoslavia and fragmented Balkan lives, Croatian-born writer-director Zoran Solomun’s Müde Weggefährten: Fünf Geschichten Aus Dem Krieg shows disparate refugees heading to and trying to survive in Germany.
A young Bosnian named Jimmy, who is always after a buck until at the last he feels compelled to recapture his soul, is a recurrent “through”-character. But each character is fresh and each segment, heartrending, brilliant.
The film opens at the Serbian-Hungarian border in 1993, a year into the Bosnian War. Two women, along with Jimmy and others, are expelled from a crowded train of refugees for having either no passport or an “expired” one due to the war. Jimmy makes his way to Germany, illegally, on his own. There, Croats, Serbs and Bosnians of varying durations in Germany meet and clash, sometimes within the same ethnic group.
In one segment hustler Jimmy and a refugee who spent time in a Serbian concentration camp try peddling the latter’s “story” to a Berlin newspaper. But the young former Yugoslavia-editor, having just published such a story only weeks ago, proves deaf to the two men’s entreaties. Jimmy will find another way to score a deutschmark, but the older man badly needed the money to help support his family. Besides, the editor makes plain that the man doesn’t really exist, that his story does not matter. He hangs himself. In the last segment, someone who earlier transported illegal refugees into Germany is transporting the coffin back to Bosnia, along with Jimmy and the suicide’s wife and daughter. (Caption: “We’ve got a corpse, but its papers are in order.”)
The war, which is over, “destroyed everything.” In a bar, Simple Simon-instructions freeze patrons mid-dance: a metaphor for political pliability and acquiescence.
86. DRIFTING CLOUDS. A sharply funny deadpan Finnish comedy, Aki Kaurismäki’s Drifting Clouds shadows the fortunes of a married couple, Ilona (Kati Outinen, brilliant) and Lauri, when both lose their jobs, one because the business for which she works is sold, the other because of company downsizing. Will clouds drift apart enough to admit new shafts of sunlight, keeping the once happy, loving couple intact?
Kaurismäki proceeds elliptically and minimalistically, like a Bresson gone comedic. Almost everything in the film is delivered in a comical fashion, and often the delivery comes in the form of an aural piece of punctuation, such as a drunk Lauri’s body falling unexpectedly to the floor. Kaurismäki’s method is sufficiently flexible to include so devastating a moment as when, while Ilona waits for Lauri to return home one night, the camera catches her standing by a photograph of a young child—the couple’s child, we glean from her still, haunted look, who has died.
Some people are put off by the film’s happy ending. Doesn’t this ending blunt Kaurismäki’s socioeconomic point, how close to poverty hardworking members of the working class can be? No. The film’s method makes this fact movingly clear. If Kaurismäki had adopted a naturalistic style, the film’s hopeful ending would likely ring false; but Kaurismäki’s style has already established, deftly, how much survival in a capitalistic society depends on luck. Good luck is the flip side of bad luck.
Much of the film is shot in a restrained, sober visual style that color cinematographer Timo Salminen punctuates with scenes of exquisite beauty. This contrast becomes another of the film’s artillery of distancing devices. One never “enters” a Kaurismäki film, losing oneself by dint of a filmmaker’s manipulations; rather, one observes and locates, in oneself, the point where critical analysis crosses humane emotional engagement.
87. PRIVATE CONFESSIONS. Written by Ingmar Bergman and directed by Liv Ullmann, Private Confessions continues the Bergman family chronicle begun with The Best Intentions (Bille August, 1991).
Bergman’s theme is Ibsenian; how necessary is truthfulness in light of its often stark consequences? His script explores the line between truth and falsehood, responsibility and irresponsibility. Ullmann’s theme, though, is more psychological: the shifting nature of both truthfulness and deceit—the more blurred line between the lies we tell others and the lies we tell ourselves. Ullmann wants to show how we achieve a sense of balance by believing our own lies. Ullmann sees this as a process quite apart from any moral considerations. Her perspective completely transforms the material.
The film proceeds achronologically, as a series of five “confessions” involving Anna (Pernilla August, superb), her spouse, Henrik, and Uncle Jacob (Max von Sydow, in a towering performance), both Lutheran priests. In one of these, Anna devastates Henrik by confessing her adultery.
The final “conversation” is a thirty-year-ago flashback. On the eve of confirmation, Anna confesses to Jacob her religious doubts. Is Anna being honest about her feelings? or is she merely creating an opportunity to be alone with Uncle Jacob, her heart’s desire? Could what we see be a lie of memory—a strategic lie by which Anna’s mind hides from her the truth? Did Jacob seduce Anna that fateful day, right before her confirmation? Did he then confess this to his wife, Maria, whose forgiveness is the basis of Jacob’s later counsel to Anna that she confess her adultery to Henrik? Has Anna been, secretly, the love of Jacob’s lifetime? All we know for certain is that Anna proceeds with her confirmation—and spends the rest of her life estranged, if not quite divorced, from God.
Human nature: fascinating stuff.
88. THE SALTMEN OF TIBET. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #91.
89. INSOMNIA. As Russia dominated the Soviet Union to the latter’s detriment and eventual ruin, Sweden dominates Scandinavia. The help that two Swedish police officers provide to Norwegian police in helping to solve a murder case reflects on this fact and, more widely, on the futile fantasy of European union. In the course of the investigation, one of the Swedish visitors accidentally shoots dead his partner, pinning the rap on the Norwegian killer they were both trying to catch. Few noirs can claim a premise as suggestive as this.
Erik Skjoldbjærg’s stunning first feature is a study in crime and guilt nearly worthy of Dostoievski. It is immeasurably assisted by the superb acting of Stellan Skarsgård as Jonas Engström, the bedeviled cop who cannot sleep. In his prolific career, this magnificent actor just once has been more brilliant: as painter Sören Kröyer in Kjelle Grede’s Hip hip hurra! (1987).
Burnt out, with his insomnia functioning as both a cause and an effect, Engström is in a mental and moral fog, to which the literal fog outdoors, responsible for the confusion that draws his fatal shot, is correlative. Skjoldbjærg, who co-authored the script with Nikolaj Frobenius, imagines Europe in something of a fog as it dreams of dissolving boundaries that various nationalisms contest.
Londoner Christopher Nolan remade Insomnia for Hollywood (2002). The story is nearly identical except for a bloodier finish and the transplantation of the action from northern Norway to Alaska. The nature of the films, however, couldn’t be farther apart. Whereas Skjoldbjærg’s film is sly, ironic, humanistic, and psychologically probing, Nolan’s is slack, dull, earsplittingly loud, superficial, and addicted to slambang action of the most frenzied and imbecilic sort. It’s as flabby and diffuse as Skjoldbjærg’s film is lean and taut. It’s also, unlike the authentic version, monstrously sentimental.
90. THE IDIOTS. Dazzling, brilliant, hilarious, poignant, Lars von Trier’s Danish Idiots is the masterpiece of Dogme 95, the movement Trier helped found that chooses naturalism and realism over artifice or technical manipulation in order to contest what its adherents see as the falsifying tendencies of individual and technologically obsessive cinema. Thus, location shooting is in, studio shooting, out; films, which must be in color and video recorded, can use no special lighting apart from a single lamp attached to the camera, nor can filters be used, nor can optical work of any kind be applied; no sound can be used apart from sounds that correspond to the images being presented; the camera must be hand-held; the action, contemporary. Trier’s creation of both Dogme- and non-Dogme films suggests he may have been putting us all on (that is, acting like an idiot), but the movement has stuck. Impishly, Trier’s off-screen voice can be heard “seriously” interviewing his fictional characters as though this film is a documentary. Indeed, few films collapse so decisively the difference between fiction and documentary.
The Idiots portrays a commune whose members in public pretend to be mentally challenged—for instance, in a restaurant, at a home insulation factory they tour, at a public swimming pool. Each is searching for his or her inner idiot; idiots, one opines, are the people of the future.
Of course, these young persons are having a blast with their antics. We, however, also get to see the responses they provoke—and, in some cases, the responses ordinary people keep themselves from having. Trier skewers the reactionary social tendency that in the U.S. goes by the name “political correctness”—“liberal” fascism.
It’s exhausting acting like an idiot. Eventually, commune members test the waters of the mainstream. Some make it; some are left behind.
91. JEW-BOY LEVI. In the mid-1930s, young Benjamin Levi, cattle trader, is making his annual work visit to a remote Black Forest farm village, hoping also, this time, to ask Andreas Horger for his daughter Lisbeth’s hand in marriage. Lonely in his itinerant life, he aches for her companionship. But there has been a sea-change in Germany. Angrily, Andreas now flashes an epithet at Benjamin: “Killer of Christ.” Benjamin mutters, “Killer of Christ, yeah, yeah.”
Also visiting is a Nazi from Berlin, a railway engineer, accompanied by workers, sent to repair worn train tracks and a collapsed tunnel. He tells Benjamin, “You are nothing.”
In the restaurant where Lisbeth works as a waitress, and where the community normally gathers after the day’s work, one by one, those who haven’t yet fully turned against Benjamin do so—except for Lisbeth. Two of the workers twist Benjamin’s ears, ordering him to sing a song of hate against Jews. Everyone but Lisbeth points the finger at Benjamin, declaring him the source of the social disharmony—a modern age’s pestilence—with which the village has become infected. We see the dynamic of scapegoating, the process of hate, calmly exposed.
In the film’s mesmerizing final shot, a long shot, the rear light of the motorcycle on which “Jew-Boy” Levi leaves, alone, in the deep darkness of night recedes and recedes. The scene is the opposite of the daylight one of Benjamin’s arrival, where he joyously sings in anticipation of his Lisbeth. The world lay all before him. Now he is disappearing into the silent dark, becoming a “nothing” before our very eyes: the most haunting intimation of the Holocaust in all of cinema.
From Thomas Strittmatter’s play, Didi Danquart has made a totally unsentimental film. It sinks into the brain like a collapsed tunnel.
92. AIMÉE & JAGUAR. “Aimée” and “Jaguar” are code names for two women living in Berlin during the latter part of the war, 1943-1944. Aimée’s real name is Felice Schragenheim; she is Jewish and a Resistance fighter, her risky cover, working for a Nazi paper under an assumed identity. Jaguar’s real name is Lilly Wust; she is married to an officer at the front. The two become lesbian lovers—verboten activity in Nazi Germany. Begun triflingly, their love affair becomes all-consuming. Co-written and directed by Max Färberböck, from a book by journalist Erica Fischer, who interviewed the real “Lilly,” Aimée & Jaguar is structured as Lilly’s reminiscence. Lilly is in her 80s now; the love of her life, we surmise, perished in a death camp.
Here is one of the saddest, most fear-fraught films in creation—reckless passion in a maelstom, recollected in poignant tranquility. The exquisite nature of the visuals, their rich, dark colors, suggest things burned in the memory—atypical ghosts contributing to the haunted memory of a nation.
Some commentators quibble about this or that. For instance, how realistic is it that the Nazi newspaper’s editor would help protect Felice’s cover? I take this as an index of how decadent Nazism had become by this late date; its form had outlasted its fervor. What about Lilly’s husband’s frequent trips home from the war? I take this as being emotionally expressive—an index of how intruded-upon Lilly felt her affair with Felice to have been. Where either history or memory is concerned, literalism may not be the best interpretive tack to take.
Impossible love affairs happen. In Nazi Germany, lovers of any kind would have had to retreat into their own world—and all the more so with this pair.
Maria Schrader is extraordinary as Felice.
93. THE LEGEND OF RITA. Brilliantly co-written by Wolfgang Kohlhaase and the director, Volker Schlöndorff’s Legend of Rita meditates afresh on the division and reunification of Germany. Rita Vogt, its protagonist, is a West German radical whose group commits robberies and murders to destabilize an unfair capitalistic society. Rita herself has killed a policeman. East Germany gives her a new identity as a textile factory worker, but her fear of discovery continues unabated, and German reunification leads to her capture. Among other things, the fall of the Berlin Wall provides a metaphor for the collapse of political idealism.
Sober and analytical rather than “exciting entertainment,” the film is also sufficiently nonpartisan to have drawn protests from both Left and Right. This is how I would describe its political viewpoint: Only the Left had any moral standing to lose. The film’s worn, weary tenor encapsulates not only exhaustion from a life on the lam but also disillusionment. Upon her entrance into East Germany, Rita is allowed to keep her gun but not bullets. We tend to think of Germany as having been divided between East and West, but Kohlhaase and Schlöndorff compel us to think of each side as being self-divided.
Rita’s decency is plain. However, her personality is as self-divided as either Germany. She continues to be, in some sense, who she no longer is; and the decency of her nature may reflect past political motives rather than past political acts. Kohlhaase and Schlöndorff provide a complex, ambiguous human portrait. In a way, neither East nor West will permit Rita’s departure from her political past.
German reunification: an unassailably wonderful thing? Once the sentimental dust settles (the fact that fractured families could become, at least superficially, whole), there remain national/political problems that, instead of being resolved, have been driven underground.
94. ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS. Italian for Beginners, from Denmark, is the first Dogme 95 film to be made by a woman. Lone Scherfig wrote and directed this fresh comedy. In the film’s last movement, members of a community Italian language class in a suburban Danish town travel as a group to Venice. Love’s impediments gradually fall by the wayside; couples come together. Throughout, Scherfig juggles a number of delightful coincidences and contrivances to concoct a captivating comedy of life, one that achieves a purely joyous consummation in Italy.
Like Shakespearean comedy, Italian for Beginners begins by being potentially tragic. Its underpinnings are steeped in loss. For instance, a lonely minister who is achingly grieving the death of his wife replaces another minister grieving the loss of his wife, which in his case has brought about a loss of faith. Also: an Italian instructor collapses in the classroom and soon after dies at hospital; a man loses his job at a restaurant; his best friend has lost his confidence with women through long inactivity; and so forth.
However, a shift is afoot; pure comedy and romance will emerge from the film’s tangle of human troubles. Lost becomes found.
In a human comedy, the acting is paramount; here, it radiates anxiety, hopefulness, vulnerabilities, and profound stirrings of the heart. A rock to others, at the center is Andreas, the new minister, wonderfully played by Anders W. Berthelsen. But all the acting is pitch-perfect. My two favorite characters are Olympia, an overwhelmed bakery clerk forever dropping pastries on the floor, and Halvfinn, the new Italian instructor who needs to learn when to keep his smart mouth shut, and whose face in one particular instance collapses into an unforgettable mixture of pride, defeat, and broken-heartedness. Anette Støvelbæk and Lars Kaalund play these two beautifully.
95. SCHULTZE GETS THE BLUES. Retired from his job as a lignite miner in eastern Germany, Schultze has little to look forward to except the polkas he plays on his accordian. Once he is captivated by Creole music, however, friends send him on a trip to the southeastern United States. There, navigating the bayou, he makes new friends amidst Cajun cooking and glorious music.
Michael Schoor’s Schultze Gets the Blues, which accumulates into a metaphor (rather than argument) for openness to experience, is remarkably elastic, conjoining, without stylistic rupture, Kaurismäkian minimalism and a Renoirian fullness of description of beauteous Nature. Schoor evokes Renoir also in the full draught of humanity he draws. Schultze opens up because strangers welcome him. Those who insist that Americans are parochial and xenophobic need not apply.
This warm film is the best German comedy ever. Befitting its minimalism, Horst Krause plays Schultze with fine attention to Schultze’s passivity and modest behavior. Schultze’s European “letting things happen to him” is deliciously overmatched by American “making things happen.” Rather than colliding, one culture enwraps the other.
Misunderstandings arise, but benignly. At a bar, Schultze’s dance partner leaves him, to get beers for them both, without saying a word, in part because of the language barrier, in part as a response to Schultze’s own silence, and in part because she shares Schultze’s profound sense of solitude. Believing himself abandoned, Schultze quits the place; her hands full, his partner wonders where he is. A brisk cut shortcircuits all melancholy. Schultze moves on, without self-pity, as will the woman.
The film ends with Schultze’s funeral, and rarely has a film so winningly conveyed the absorption of a person’s death by the preceding good life rather than the other way around.
Besides Krause, Schoor’s principal collaborator is Axel Schneppat, his color cinematographer.
96. NÓI ALBÍNÓI. A droll, gentle, humane comedy about a 17-year-old boy’s coming of age in a remote fjord village, Dagur Kári’s Nói albínói, from Iceland, is a series of incidents from Nói’s most difficult life. Writer-director Kári leaves unexplained Nói’s mother’s absence, and this absence of information becomes correlative to Nói’s feelings on the matter, for, whatever the actual explanation might be, the loss of her must be incomprehensible to Nói. Both Grandma, with whom Nói lives, and Dad, a hard-luck case, endlessly worry about the boy they both dearly love.
We glean Nói’s restlessness in his isolated village; so often he cuts short doing one thing to go off and do another. He dreams of fleeing with girlfriend Íris, but at a critical juncture she won’t agree to do this. Since above all else he wants to get away, he takes off, in an appropriated vehicle, on his own.
Prior to doing this, armed with a shotgun, Nói enters the village bank and demands money. Everyone treats the thing as a joke! The teller ignores Nói’s request; the bank president confiscates the weapon and ushers Nói out, warning him not to try such foolishness again. Here, as in other incidents involving Nói and villagers, we glean the complexity of the communal context to which even an iconoclastic loner like Nói belongs.
Looming is an omnipresent symbol for the non-negotiable nature of reality: the huge, snow-clad mountain that, depending on the light, appears to be real or spectral, faint in the background or a hovering presence. In a variation on Kasimir Malevich’s oil painting White on White, Kári visually portrays village and villagers as pressed upon by the whiteness. Nói fires his shotgun at shingles of ice, retaliating against a white reality into which he worries his consciousness is dissolving.
97. THE SOUL OF A MAN. Opening with NASA’s 1977 launch of Voyager and proceeding to the stars, Wim Wenders has made a film celebrating the American blues he loves. It is a hybrid, mixing reenactments and documentary, punctuated by reinterpretations of blues songs by contemporary rock artists. It is one of the seven entries of The Blues, a PBS television series executive-produced by Martin Scorsese.
From the heavens, the film descends to Earth in the 1920s, to Blind Willie Johnson, one of the film’s principal subjects. The other two are Skip James, from the 1930s, and J. B. Lenoir, from the 1960s. Johnson was blinded at seven when his stepmother threw lye into his face. Black-and-white reconstructions involving Johnson and James in the 1920s and 1930s were shot using an old, hand-cranked 35mm. camera synchronized to authentic tracks of the men singing. The visual and emotional effect transports us back in time and, metaphorically, to the stars. With the help of James’s haunting sound, Wenders achieves a trenchant (if fleeting) evocation of the Great Depression.
The frailty of human lives: following recording sessions in early 1931, James “never saw a red cent” from his profit percentage. The market for blues recordings collapsed, and the company for which he recorded went bankrupt. James became a Baptist minister. Wrapped up in his new life, James did not know that his few released records had become legendary. He reemerged in the 1960s, playing not to the front row but to “the great beyond.”
An interview of a Swedish couple who befriended Lenoir follows. The Swedish woman disputes the notion that gospel and the blues are mutually exclusive kinds of music. Blues musicians like Lenoir, she says, “create spirit.”
Lenoir sang about his struggles as a black man in the inhospitable South and died impoverished.
98. DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE. From Austria, Hubert Sauper’s documentary provides an inside-out view of globalization, focusing on a fishing community in the East African nation of Tanzania. Mwanza depends for its livelihood on Lake Victoria, the origin of the Nile River. The lake once sustained the Bantu inhabitants with its flourishing fish, but its ecological system was destroyed by the introduction into it of a predatory fish as a “scientific” experiment in the 1960s. Today, Mwanza’s industries are catching, processing and packaging the predators so that boxfuls of cans can be flown to Europe and Japan, where they inexpensively appear on supermarket shelves. Sauper’s film documents the cost to locals; Lake Victoria identifies the new global economy with earlier forms of European colonization of Africa as effortlessly as the Nile perch, which eats other fish and its own, exemplifies Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.” Sauper’s bold images are as hallucinatory as they are indisputably real.
Famine is widespread. Locals make do with scraps of fish that the plant discards. We see a “killing field” of these scraps: heads and eyes, tails, bits of flesh stuck to skeletons—an expanse of waste swarming with maggots.
In exchange for the fish, the West exports arms to Africa, helping to keep the continent embroiled in national and regional conflicts.
Meanwhile, local workers are paid sub-subsistence wages, but the Europeans there to manage and secure the processing plant and to direct the arms/fish exchange have endowed another industry: prostitution. Exploitation having undermined and undone the local social structure, sexual promiscuity abounds, and AIDS and HIV are rampant. With only fish scraps to eat and nothing else to do, boys knock themselves out outdoors by melting the plant’s discarded boxes and sniffing the resultant chemical glue: children ripe for sodomization.
This is only part of the nightmare.
99. NINA’S JOURNEY. Nina Rajmic, filmmaker Lena Einhorn’s mother, is a teenager when her mother, Fania, moves her from Lodz to Warsaw in an attempt to elude ghettoization. The Nazis follow. Fania and Nina, helped by Rudek, their son and elder brother, escape the Warsaw Ghetto and go into hiding. Artur, their spouse and father, is deported to a death camp.
We do not have to wonder whether Nina survives the war. We see and hear the actual Nina 55 years later, and hear her voiceover. After the war, Nina went to medical school in Denmark, met there and married Einhorn’s father, and settled in Sweden. Nina’s Journey is a Swedish film.
Massively moving and humane, it recounts a particular, vivid Jewish family history. Einhorn has combined, along with her mother’s own oral history, both fiction and documentary. The “fiction,” in color, consists of dramatic re-enactments of what occurred to the Rajmics and extended family members; the “documentary,” in black and white, consists of archival newsreel snips and photographs. However, the old film elements do not appear as inserts interrupting the flow of the family narrative; rather, these elements are selected and combined with the other elements so that a single narrative stream, all moving in one direction, is the remarkable result. Moreover, Einhorn achieves a fine flexibility with her various materials, creating a harmony of chords like a virtuoso’s bow across the strings of a violin. At one point, sound from one kind of element continues on into the next, different element; and, at one amazing point, Fania, that is to say, the actress playing her, appears in a black-and-white snippet of faux-newsreel: one kind of element sliding into another. In retrospect, we may even wonder if some of the other archival contributions were in fact devised for the film.
100. THE EDGE OF HEAVEN. From Germany and Turkey, writer-director Fatih Akin’s Auf der anderen Seite is an intricate, deeply affecting drama about separated and estranged family members and intertwining just-missed family reconciliations, and points of both commonality and misunderstanding between the cultures of both countries, as well as Turkey’s own wobbled identity between Muslim Asian and secular European.
Nejat Aksu lives in Hamburg. His father, also a Turkish immigrant, lives in Bremen, where his live-in single-client prostitute, Yeter, also Turkish, is earning money for daughter Ayten’s schooling. A blow from Ali, Nejat’s father, causes Yeter’s death. Nejat returns to Turkey to find Ayten so he can take over the financing of her education. But Ayten is, according to the state, a terrorist. Believing her mother is still alive, Ayten flees to Germany, where, homeless, she becomes the lover of bohemian college student Lotte Staub in Lotte’s bourgeois mother’s home. In the meantime, Nejat has bought and runs a German bookshop in Istanbul. Ayten’s return to Istanbul—she is deported from Germany—results in imprisonment; Lotte follows to try to get her freed. Lotte is accidentally shot and killed by kids playing. (Ayten’s own gun, which Lotte has found upon Ayten’s instructions, delivers the fatal bullet.) This tragedy brings Susanne, Lotte’s mother, to Istanbul. She tries to get Ayten freed. Ali has returned to Turkey. As a child, Nejat recalls, he asked his father whether he would sacrifice him, as Ibrahim was prepared to sacrifice Ismail, if Allah ordered it. “Not even for Allah!” This recollection reconciles Nejat with Ali, whom he goes off to see unannounced. The film ends with Nejat sitting on the beach, poised for his father’s return from rowing.
Perhaps death is necessary to erase familial estrangement; perhaps reconciliation comes only “on the other side.”
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