Twenty-one years apart, Berlin-based documentarian Cynthia Beatt made two films about the Berlin Wall. “Cycling the Frame,” a fine though slight piece made for television, strikes us as at least obliquely prophetic of the fall of the Berlin Wall that would shortly arrive. Tilda Swinton, Beatt’s visible surrogate while also playing herself, rides her bicycle at or near the Wall on the West German side (including into the suburbs), to which she is restricted—this restriction, ironically, a reflection of restricted East German lives that the construction of the Wall punctuated. A shot of a river or stream on the western side elicits from Beatt/Swinton a consideration (in voiceover) of this restriction: what is it like in hot weather to see but not be able to cool oneself in this inviting water? This sort of rumination connects with the expanded ground for her bicycle riding in the later film, The Invisible Frame (which is twice as long as the first), where Beatt/Swinton declares, “I want to view what the Wall was like from the other side.”
Of course, by 2009 the Wall no longer materially exists; it is a “phantom wall,” one of history’s vanished artifacts and “ghost[s].” The voiceover muses that, when the Wall existed, its presence was so taken for granted that it became in a sense invisible (“Brutality,” remarks Beatt/Swinton, “was translated as some sort of Stoic acceptance”), while now, bearing the heft of historical memory, the Wall, although vanished, draws attention. Its absence is felt. Its former material existence, and the familial, social and political separations and divisions this signified, must continually be dealt with.
The invisible visible Wall and the “visible” invisible Wall: Beatt draws a parallel between these, on the one hand, and her former self and current self, as Swinton manifests these for the camera, on the other. “Twenty-one years,” Swinton’s voicing of Beatt thus muses at the launch of The Invisible Frame. “What have I learned in 21 years?” In some ways the two films are alike; at the beginning of both, for instance, the camera approaches the Brandenburg Gate. We can see (and hear), though, that the later film is far more fluent, because of its more sophisticated camera and editing (Dörte Völz-Mammarella edited the later film), and also, of course, because Beatt herself is more sophisticated, as a comparison of the two films’ voiceover indicates; and, in turn, this greater fluency correlates to the toppling of the Berlin Wall and Germany’s reunification and expanded freedom. People (including Beatt/Swinton) can now go back and forth between what had been rigidly divided halves of Germany; parallel to this, Beatt/Swinton can weigh the difference between her former and current selves, mentally traversing her own past and present, going back and forth. In a beautiful shot underscoring this parallel between Beatt/Swinton and the Wall, Swinton stands still, toward the right edge of the frame, in a grassy field that is animated by a breeze. It is the breeze of history, both personal and national.
“Toward the right edge of the frame”: On one level, the film’s wonderful title refers to the “disappearance” of “the frame” as a consequence of the nearly continuous bicycling motion—something, again, that is correlative to the lost prison-boundary between East and West Berlin and the resultant freedom of movement between the two Germanys. Beatt “loses” the frame—helps make it “invisible”—in another, subtle way. In “Cycling the Frame,” the camera, as I recall, follows Swinton on her bicycle; when it cuts away briefly during scenes of her bicycling, it is to suggest subjective glimpses of hers to the right and the left of her: point-of-view shots, generally of unpopulated Nature, that in effect complete or round out the objective shots of Swinton as she is bicycling. However, The Invisible Frame employs as well a more complex procedure. Here, there will be cuts away from Swinton on her bicycle to views on one side or another of her that cannot possibly coincide with what she is witnessing or glimpsing. These include entirely different characters, engaged in activities in their own lives, whom we, along with Beatt, glimpse apart from Swinton, who is momentarily “lost” by the camera and with whom, soon after, the camera again catches up: this entire filmmaking procedure, itself, a visual metaphor for the expanded freedom that is at the heart of the film. Put another way, in the second film Beatt expands her own freedom and sensitive awareness—and, ironically, Swinton’s freedom, by implication, as well—by removing the slash from “Beatt/Swinton.” Not irrelevant to this, while the first film is largely unpopulated around Swinton, the later one is bursting with diverse humanity, at least peripherally.
Similarly, whereas the earlier film admits sparser, more strenuously selected ambient sounds, the later one is richer in such noises and sounds. Here, too, it is bursting with freedom and life. Let me add the obvious: the later film plainly had more resources, including financial resources, at its disposal—another kind of expanded freedom.
This astonishing piece of work—I hadn’t even heard of Beatt!—ends gracefully, powerfully, hauntingly, with Swinton giving marvelous voice to writer-director Beatt’s poetic invocation to continued and greater freedom: “Open doors, open eyes, open ears, open air, open country, . . . open hearts, open minds, open locks, open borders, open future, open skies, open arms, Open Sesame.”
I don’t want to know anyone who isn’t moved to tears by this radiant film.
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