A Film Unfinished

This was not quite the film I expected, although in many particulars it conformed to my expectations. The central artifact of this documentary is a different film, an infamous and unfinished Nazi propaganda film of staged scenes of ghetto life, which had previously been taken as a mixture of staged and documentary scenes; however, discovery of an outtakes reel in 1998 indicated that even the less manifestly propagandistic scenes had been directed and staged. I was expecting a typical documentary, full of talking-head film historians and voiceovers musing about the German propaganda machine. The making of the propaganda film is in fact is not the thrust of this movie at all, and it devotes the bare minimum of interest to the questions raised by Das Ghetto (of which there are many: it’s a bizarre work even by the standards of Nazi propaganda); instead it uses the film, and the events of the filming, as a central motif in recollecting life in the Warsaw ghetto through the eyes of survivors, the journals of the dead, and the reports and later testimony of German officials. In spite of being staged, and highly offensively staged in respects, it is in fact the only video memento of that horror, and this film reclaims it with dreadful purpose, setting the scenes which bear a semblance of verisimilitude against survivors’ experiences of the same, and the wholly staged scenes against readings of entries form Czeriniaków’s diary relating to the stagings performed by the film crew.

It was affecting and horrifying, and distressingly real. There’s something to be said about the mediation of film, that in the scene depicting a mass burial I was startled and shocked to think that it wasn’t, say, Hotel Rwanda, and that I was seeing not a recreation or a dramatization but the actual atrocities being depicted. We are perhaps to a certain extent desensitized by re-enactment, and filter what we see on film as not being “real”. But no matter how many Nazi propagandists were massaging the cinematography to cast themselves as well as possible, this was a lens on the death and squalor and hopelessness of the ghetto, juxtaposed grotesquely with the staged luxury. Viewed just as a silent film, this work would be troubling but so intercut with patent absurdities as to be impossible to process. Taken in concert with appropriately chosen survivor memoirs and the cameraman’s testimony, we get a vivid view of the realities the camera evades.

Apropos of all this admiration for the film’s commitment to reality, I must confess a certain disappointment with the decision to re-enact some scenes of the German administrator’s reporting and the cameraman’s testimony. Re-enactment is rarely a useful tool, but particularly in the context of a film struggling with the concept of cinematic verity in gleaning truth from a much older work of fiction, I found it to undercut the purity of the endeavor and wished that they’d stuck to voiceovers for this, as they had done for reading the victims’ diaries.

See also: Wikipedia, IMDB

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Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed

[Screenshot]I’m an animation buff, and I’ve found the films from the early, expressionistic days of German cinema interesting, so this film sits at a nice intersection of interests. It’s also gorgeous, which helps. One interesting thing about early cinema is how it achieves its aims through imaginative use of the extremely limited technology of the time. This is not only an erly film, but an early animation, so it utilizes methods which have, in many ways, been rendered obsolete, but uses them extraordinarily effectively. The fundamental technology underlying this production is essentially shadow-puppetry: Lotte Reiniger cut out these astonishingly detailed articulated paper-and-cardboard figures, and filmed them in stop-motion. It’s of necessity a rather crude technique, which can only produce silhouettes, but when those silhouettes are as intricate as these are, and they’re laid on a background which suggests setting, the result can be surprisingly immersive. This is quite a cinematic tour de force, from a technical and aesthetic standpoint. As regards plot and suchike concerns, it’s considerably weaker: it’s a pretty straightforward Richard-Burton-Oriental fantasy, and since it’s a silent film, the reliance on title cards for plot advancement means there’s very little subtlety in the story’s construction. But as long as you don’t expect a narrative with terrific depth, this is an enjoyable watch, simply for the artistry in the image-production.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Good Bye Lenin!

[Screenshot]Good Bye Lenin! is more about creating a sense of time, place, and character than about bringing the funny. While the underlying conceit is humorously absurd, and while there are definitely some funny moments, it’s used as a launching point for a period piece which isn’t all that intrinsically hilarious. The changes of the late 90s in central Europe somewhat fascinate me, so I was pleased by the lack of distraction in delivering a story about the social changes that came with the opening of the border. And the nature of the underlying conceit does bring those changes to the fore, from immigration to supermarket shelves to the economic rockiness which the currency unification brought. This story feels like a series of vignettes to a certain extent: there’s no progression of the central plot as such, just damage control, and yet the wider world continues to move onwards, with the formalities of the reunification serving as waypoints in an otherwise static series of deceptions. I found the pacing and presentation of theme in this one to be its most appealing point: as mentioned above, I feel it presented a good picture of the culture which developed and its change over time. Others with less of an interest in the historical aspects will probably find something else to like, though. It’s capably done, with poignant humor and a few incidental themes which most anyone can enjoy (for instance, the blossoming of Denis’s self-confidence and art through Alex’s dependence on his skills).

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Hitler: ein Film aus Deutschland

[Screenshot]Hitler has been praised as being highly artistic, incisive and thoughtful. I hated every minute of it.

I may not be properly appreciative of cinema, but a lot of the things I like about films are dramatic: characterization, acting, plot development, etc. Hitler is a nontraditional film, which is fundamentally undramatic. I kept expecting the monologies, the puppet shows, and the historical splices to cohere into an actual narrative. It didn’t, and eventually it started to bore me. Apparently one is supposed to jsut appreciate a sequence of disjointed monologies. For over seven fucking hours. No, thank you. I bailed after one, so maybe the last six and a half hours are a triumph of moviemaking at which even my philistine soul would rejoice. But I kinda doubt it.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Downloadable version.

Tuvalu

[Screenshot]It’s always fun to see a film I’m pretty sure most other folks haven’t seen, because then I feel like by writing them up I’m maybe telling people something they haven’t heard a million times already. I suspect Tuvalu is one of those cases. It’s a very peculiar film and a highly stylized one. It’s almost entirely free of dialogue (one of the longest, and most comprehensible speeches in the movie is Gregor saying “Technology, System, Profit!”) and filmed in monotint, so the overall feel is of a silent movie. And it works, and doesn’t feel gimmicky. The actors have gotten very much into the parts, emoting in the grand, sweeping way one expects from a silent film (especially a German silent film: Doktor Caligari has a long shadow). The only influence of modernity on this odd period piece is focus on technology and different characters’ perspectives thereon and uses therefor. The technology in question has a certain Victorian charm, which puts this into something of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet headspace, in my mind at least, what with the decaying technostructure. And yet, it has a distinct sense of place, despite the variety of French and German and probably other influences: there is a very strong visual feeling is of a dying port city in central Europe, presented through the tenements, the docks, and the crumbling bathhouse.

Anyways, it’s a quirktastic fun ride, and undeservedly obscure.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei

[Screenshot]This one is storywise good, and shows competent cinemacraft. Where it bugs me is ideology.

Let’s start with the acting, and the straightforward aspects of the film. The central four actors emote well and do a great job with what they’re given. I didn’t know of them before now, but I’m not well-versed in German films, so I can’t be surprised. Nonetheless, they’re good at what they do, and they’re given a pretty decent script to follow (at least as far as I can tell from translation).

So, on to ideology. This film has a distinctly sympathetic viewpoint, and it wants us to sympathize with Jan and Jule (and, to a lesser extent, Peter). The problem is that their attitudes are completely idiotic. They’re angry, and justifiably, but their anger isn’t directed towards any constructive sort of change. They have no real agenda. This seems to fly with some crowd, based on how many hogh-school anarchists there are around, but it doesn’t really work to tear down a system unless you actually have a reason to believe you can improve it. Hardenberg, whose viewpoint is not sympathetically presented, explicitly asks them what they mean to accomplish. They don’t really have an answer, and as far as I can tell nobody involved with the film had a problem with that. They probably should have.

I’m just kind of bugged that we have a tailor-made conflict which could really illuminate the purposes of revolution. We have a lot of dialogue between the battle-scarred, cynical ex-revolutionary and the young purposeless idealists. There’s room for these ideas to meet in the middle gloriously. Instead, we get an epilogue which firmly establishes the rule of the day: starry-eyed idealism without goals makes you a hero, realistic resignation makes you a villain.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Gloomy Sunday: Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod

[Screenshot]Gloomy Sunday is apparently one of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’s favorite films, and set in Hungary. So I was sold, and how glad I was to be. It’s a sentimental, historical early-twentieth century piece, and one of the few such Hungarian-German productions not featuring István Szabó. It’s also based very loosely on a real story, inasmuch as Gloomy Sunday is a real song and even an urban legend. It’s surprisingly good: there’s a lot of chemistry in the characterization. The female lead is as bewitching as the narrative requires her to be and strong enough that her resistance of all the males’ efforts to objectify her come through strong, and her two paramours do an excellent job in presenting their own awkward, strained symbiosis. Even Hans is strongly presented, both in his facade of moderation and the pure monstrosity behind the mask. The cinematography is competent, and the music is excellent (as it should be, inasmuch as they use the real song “Gloomy Sunday” and variations thereon for most of the score). There’s just a lot of really excellent acting on display, and in service of a plot that’s sweet, comic, tragic, and cruel in turns. Yeah, it’s good — probably one of the most outright emotive films I’ve seen lately.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.