Tag Archives: German cinema

Barbara – The Lives of Someone or Other

Barbara bushed

Sold as a spiritual successor to The Lives of Others, that masterful 2006 dissection of East Germany under the tyranny of the Stasi which assumedly everyone has seen by now, Christian Petzold’s Barbara takes a similarly personal look at this dark period in recent German history, but with none of the scale that has made Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film a modern classic.

Nina Hoss, looking intense and wearied, plays Barbara, a top East Berlin doctor banished to a provincial hospital for offending the powers-that-be with her desires to defect to the West. Adapting poorly to country life, Barbara finds herself under the command of chief paediatrician André (Ronald Zehrfeld), a handsome, bearlike and good-natured man who despite this is charged with keeping the Stasi informed as to Barbara’s comings and goings.

An excellent doctor with a strong bedside manner unexpected of someone so closed-off and bitter, Barbara finds herself torn between her duty to her patients and her desire to escape East Germany to freedom and her West German lover. But her relationship with André and the ever-watchful Stasi complicate matters.

Shot in tidy, steady frames, in natural colours that evoke the beautifully bland countryside of 1980s Germany, Barbara is a finely constructed film that rarely wows with its imagery. The historical details, from costumes and cars to the actions of the intrusive Stasi, add to the film’s honesty and its feeling of oppression, but they are not exactly eye candy. “You can’t be happy here,” she tells her lover when he offers to stay in East Germany with her, but her statement has all the punch as if she had emphasised the universal “you”, meaning everyone, anyone. It’s easy to see why.

The script is well-written for the most part, with little superfluous dialogue and two broadly developed lead characters, but the story is stupefyingly predictable. If you haven’t worked out exactly where it’s going 30 minutes from the conclusion, it’s possible you have never seen a film before. There are other difficulties too; like so many dramas in recent years the film relies on the use of previously established works of art to underscore its own story. Huckleberry Finn emphasises the dream of escape. Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp reveals both how good a doctor André is, but also his emotional depth. In the end, a short story by Ivan Turgenev serves as the catalyst for the film’s final moments. It’s all a little too easy.

But Barbara is never less than watchable, and Hoss manages to make a difficult character deeply relatable. Zehrfeld and she have great on-screen chemistry, and it is the film’s greatest draw. The supporting cast are similarly strong. Jasna Fritzi Bauer manages to not over-do it as a temperamental young patient determined to stay in hospital and not return to her labour camp. Rainer Bock shifts believably from glaring, evil Stasi officer to weak, almost pitiable man.

A finely told drama, Barbara never manages to be more than that, and as a commentary on life in the former East Germany it drowns in the shadow of The Lives of Others. If it is to be remembered, it will likely be for the utterly unsuitable choice of closing credits song, a soulful ballad by ’70s American R&B group Chic. Whether you enjoy the film or not, you will leave the cinema scratching your head at who let the filmmakers pick that number.

3/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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Metropolis – Special Extended Edition

The news last month that new (or rather old) scenes thought lost from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis have been found in storage in Argentina has got the film world talking about the classic once more. Not to say it ever left the agenda. Since 1927 it has remained one of the most inspiring movies ever made.

I was fortunate enough to attend a screening of it at the Dublin International Film Festival two years back, having spent many years trying to find a chance to watch it but always missing the opportunity. The DIFF’s showing was quite the gala presentation, held in the National Gallery of Ireland with a live and newly composed score by the fantastic 3epkano. Once in a lifetime events don’t come much more impressive than that, especially when you’ve read and heard so much about a film but are only finally becoming acquainted with it for the first time.

Which brings me to the point of this discussion, is Metropolis not perfect enough as it is? That’s not to say that the missing scenes won’t complete it, but is all the hubbub not likely to end in some level of disappointment?

Reading Sight & Sound’s article ‘The Metropolis mystery’, which recounts in exhausting detail the story of how this original copy was rediscovered and identified, one gets that strange feeling which comes from watching a really excellent trailer for a film you’ve been dying to see for some time; can it really live up to the hype?

Metropolis is full of holes. Not many, and not big ones, but they are there. They gnaw away at the overall product. The most complete version that has been available to see to date fills those holes with intertitles describing what the missing scenes were known to contain. The problem is, they never described scenes that seemed particularly exciting. Many of them detailed the continuing adventures of the amusingly named minor character Worker 11811 as he adventured in the city disguised as Freder, the film’s hero. A lot of these scenes sounded very much like the kind of scene that would be removed from the average theatrical release, with just cause.

When you watch the deleted scenes on DVDs, how often do you find yourself not saying: “Oh, I see why that was deleted”? Extended and director’s cuts only rarely add much to a film. For every Blade Runner and Das Boot there’s an Apocalypse Now or Cinema Paradiso to lengthen and confuse, or even worse a Hellboy or Gladiator that adds nothing but fluff. My fear would be that in spite of the hype this definitive cut of Metropolis could be seen to be more like the latter of these cases. The drowning of the workers is already a gripping scene as has been shown to this date, what can more footage really add? Is there an element of the director’s cut of RoboCop here, not knowing when to stop the violence once the point’s been made?

There is no question of whether or not I will hunt down this version. I certainly will once it is restored, scored and hits art house cinemas for the three days that it can survive there once more. I sadly wish however that I could forget the version I have seen before, forget the story I have read of how it was rediscovered in the museum warehouse in Buenos Aires, and appreciate the film as it should be, as a whole, without constantly picking out and analysing the new scenes silently in my mind.

Because none of the new scenes, even those which promise to finally reveal the reason behind the villainous Rotwang’s madness, can compare to those which are already in the film, such as the machine disaster sequence shown above. These are the scenes that have made Metropolis perhaps the most famous silent non-comedy of them all. The rest, in truth, is only filler.

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Nicolas Cage ≠ Bruno Ganz

Wings of Desire

Flicking through the movie channels last night I stumbled upon City of Angels, that purest example of the pop-rock chick flick, and it caused me great discomfort. It was less than a month ago that after many years of hoping to see it that I finally caught Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire at the Irish Film Institute during their Wenders season, choosing only to book tickets at the last minute as I collected mine for Paris, Texas.

Wings of Desire had a huge effect on me, as it has on so many for the last twenty years. Part art movie, part historiography, part dramatic love story, it was one of the most spellbinding films I had ever seen. The ten minutes I saw of City of Angels only affirmed my passion for Wenders’s film more so.

Here in the place of Bruno Ganz, quiet, calm, restrained, and transfixed by the world around him, is Nicolas Cage, one of a number of actors, and perhaps the best example of them, for whom acting emotional is shown through elongating the face, flailing limbs and raising the voice to a shout.

Meg Ryan, playing the Solveig Dommartin role, is pictured as the perfect girl, one worth giving up immortality for, not because of her lost and challenged soul as in the original film, but because she’s pretty, played by someone famous and cures babies for a living.

Some references to Wings of Desire are worthy in their attempt to live up to the original. The scenes in the library for example are directly borrowed, and have some of the style, but none of the artistry of those from Wings, which cannot be rivalled in terms of cinematography nor subtly.

What is troubling rather is the nods to Wings of Desire with which director Brad Silberling has failed to follow through. Occasional flashes of black and white through Seth’s eyes are only shadows of the beautiful but haunting mono-coloured eternity in Wings. When Seth elects to become mortal, his “fall” is embarrassingly literal. Damiel elects to become human and simply is; he breaks the heart of his friend and counterpart Cassiel in mid-conversation with his conversion. Both Seth and Damiel awaken as mortals and experience everything human as a joy, but Ganz and Wenders have Damiel take things in; his confusion and joy almost rob him of his attention to his goal, to find the woman he loves. Cage’s Seth, now human, flaps about dementedly like a drunken schoolgirl.

The differences between the two films can be summed up in the characters’ introduction to a colourful world. Seth discovers blood is red, symbolising lazily that human existence is both beautiful and hard. Damiel learns his colours from graffiti adorning the Berlin Wall, spectacularly summarising some of the worst and greatest aspects of human existence in a manner made so poignant given that the Wall would fall only two years later.

Surprisingly, I learn from a combination of Wikipedia and YouTube that Meg Ryan’s character dies in City of Angels, leaving Seth alone to discover life as a mortal man. Certainly this allows for a good hard weep from the audience, and people can question whether Seth’s sacrifice was worth it… or they can see Wings of Desire, and see that the purpose of the story is not about whether they get together or not (they very nearly miss one another at the Nick Cave gig), but about the experiences of mortality versus immortality (barely summed up in the American film by “he can touch her, and have sex with her, therefore mortality is awesome” – not a direct quote).

If any moment in Wings of Desire are truly touching, they are not those in which Damiel longs for Marion, but in the inner thoughts of the characters. The young girl escaping school for prostitution, the old man determined to tell the story of his people, Peter Falk’s ponderings on the effects of WWII and his art work. The sequence with the suicide is overwhelming to watch but has a profound effect.

The popularity of City of Angels amongst the average audience testifies not only to the pulling power of its stars and its shiny pop-rock soundtrack, but also to Wenders and Peter Handke’s story, that given the intellectuality and artistic competence that fill the film are unlikely to allow Wings of Desire appeal to many international audiences.

Those who have seen it however, will likely be touched to the core of their being. Those who see City of Angels will likely be entertained for two hours, and might even get a little teary eyed, but they should be looking for more.

Oh, and no matter how hard he wishes, Dennis Franz ≠ Peter Falk.

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