Monday, 16 May 2016

Films #37 + #38: Victoria (15) and Sophie Scholl (PG)

Victoria (15) 

Released: 2015 
Directed by: Sebastian Schipper

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (PG)

Released: 2005
Directed by: Marc Rothemund
Original title: Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tagen 

I appear to have missed the boat on writing about Victoria – I actually watched it when it first came out at the start of April, but didn’t manage to write anything before I took off to Japan for a month. My review wouldn’t have been very long anyway because it would be very easy to spoil the plot. In a nutshell, Victoria (Laia Costa), a Spanish woman working in Berlin, befriends a group of German guys as she prepares to head to work after a night out. Their initial chatting and flirting soon develops into something deeper and more dangerous.

I’m basically going to echo most of the other reviews I’ve read – it’s great! I liked the fact that it was shot in one take (particularly the piano playing) and really enjoyed seeing Berlin on the screen again. As a Brit and a non-native speaker of German, I also loved the way the characters swapped between German and slightly broken English. Victoria can’t understand the guys when they switch to German, and I think this works even better for audience members who speak German and aren’t relying on the subtitles to follow the film.

On the face of it, Sophie Scholl – a true story with a tragic end – has very little in common with Victoria. However, they both boast great central female performances. Set in 1943, Sophie Scholl opens with Sophie (Julia Jentsch), her brother Hans and their fellow members of the White Rose resistance group preparing texts critical of Hitler’s regime. When they run out of envelopes, Sophie and Hans offer to distribute them at their university. Thanks to an officious janitor they are quickly caught, and from here on the film mainly consists of two-handed scenes: Sophie and her interrogator; Sophie and her cellmate. In this respect it reminded me of 13 Minutes, the film about Georg Elser that I reviewed last year.

In her interrogations with Gestapo officer Mohr, Sophie denies her involvement and pretends to be apolitical. Julia Jentsch perfectly captures the emotions Sophie initially tries to suppress then allows to flow at full force once she has nowhere to run. Her objectives then switch to protecting her friends and family from a similar fate and explaining precisely why she refuses to prescribe to the Nazi world view. A final court scene is frustrating and anger-inducing as we watch one-sided “justice” being served. 

One loud and vibrant, one quiet and understated - Victoria and Sophie Scholl are both worth a couple of hours of your time.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Film #36: Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer / The People vs. Fritz Bauer

Released: 2015
Directed by: Lars Kraume

Well I think it's fair to say that all my good intentions for watching lots of German films - and writing about them - went completely out the window in 2015! According to the list I made, I watched a total of 90 films last year, 32 of them in the cinema. Of those 32, only 2 were German films watched in UK cinemas, which I find a bit sad. I know there was at least 1 other German film released over here (which I missed because I was ill), but that's still a pretty poor showing. Still, maybe Deutschland 83, which began showing on British TV last Sunday, will prove really popular and prompt the showing of more German films?

Of the two films I watched in the cinema during my trip to Basel, I only wrote a full review of Er ist wieder da. My review of Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer never fully took shape, and it was too long ago to write a detailed review now, but here are the thoughts I did manage to commit to paper: 

Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer is the story of the man who brought Adolf Eichmann to justice, and incorporates elements of the detective novel and film noir to create an entertaining experience. I don’t know much about the real Fritz Bauer, so I can’t say whether Burghart Klaußner’s portrayal is accurate. However, the older members of the audience seemed to take really well to his performance, and I thought it was great. Faced with opposition and behind-the-scenes skulduggery from the people supposedly on his side, he is forced to resort to serious and risky measures to positively identify Eichmann and set the wheels in motion for his arrest. 

I also cannot say whether the film sticks to the real facts, but I believe the plot is a realistic depiction of the struggles Bauer faced in bringing high-ranking Nazis to justice. In the film, he is aided by Karl Angermann, a composite character invented for the film to reflect aspects of Bauer’s various colleagues. Angermann also has his secrets, and is targeted for blackmail by the people working against Bauer. This is the aspect of the film that could negatively affect its certification if released in the UK - there is little swearing or violence, but one sexual scene would probably lead it to receive a higher rating. 

I really enjoyed the film and think it would appeal to people who would normally go to see things like Bridge of Spies. Hopefully we'll see a UK release!

Thursday, 5 November 2015

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

Released: 2015
Directed by: David Wnendt 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Film #34: Nothing Bad Can Happen / Tore tanzt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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