Sunday, June 29, 2014

June Quick Picks and Pans – Germany Month

Antibodies (2005) Writer/director Christian Alvart (Downfall) ponders the nature of good and evil in this complex thriller. The title serves as a metaphor for the inherent trappings of civilization and notions of morality that protect us from damaging thoughts and destructive impulses.  When pious cop Michael Martens (Wotan Wilke Mohring) is tasked with interviewing serial child killer Gabriel Engel (André Hennicke) about his crimes, Engel gets inside his head.  Shrouded by his religious faith and blinded by delusions of living a virtuous life, Martens becomes susceptible to Engel’s dangerous ideations as surely as a virus.  As the infection spreads, he begins to doubt himself and his family.  Alvart suggests that everyone, no matter how upright, has demons that we dare not reveal to the rest of society.  Given the heinous crimes perpetrated by Engel, Alvart shows commendable restraint, revealing just enough to set your mind reeling, but not enough to turn away the audience.  The tense atmosphere kept me on the edge of my seat for the duration of the 2-hour-plus film.  Just when it appeared to be heading one way, there were surprises in store.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD.

Felidae (1994) Director Michael Schaack’s bold animated film, based on a novel by Akif Pirinçci, is reminiscent of The Plague Dogs, mixed with The Aristocats.  We follow the exploits of intrepid feline protagonist Francis as he investigates a rash of murdered cats in his neighborhood.  As the mystery unfolds, he uncovers a plot bigger than he ever imagined, involving the human and cat worlds.  Due to Felidae’s adult themes and graphic imagery, it was probably considered unmarketable in the U.S., and never received a proper domestic release. While the depictions of sex and vivisection are admittedly strong stuff, it deserved better.  Few animated films outside the realm of anime have dared to explore similar territory with such a frank approach.  Felidae avoids the sort of formulaic elements many American viewers have been conditioned to expect, such as throwaway comic characters or extraneous musical interludes.  Lovers of international animation, as well as anyone tired of animated films aimed at 8-year-olds, will likely find a lot to like.  While Region 1 residents are out of luck regarding a home video release, it’s currently available on YouTube.  Catch it while you can.

Rating: ****.  Currently unavailable on DVD (Region 1).

NoBody’s Perfect (2008) Niko von Glasow’s eye-opening documentary is a bit like Calendar Girls with a twist.  The film chronicles a nude photo shoot featuring 12 victims of Thalidomide (a potent sedative that was prescribed to expectant mothers in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and resulted in infants with physical deformities).  While the material could easily have devolved into an exploitive freak show, von Glasow chooses to focus on the participants as individuals, each with unique stories of dealing with prejudice and struggles to fit into society.  Instead of a reductive examination of their defects, we are treated to an exploration of their strengths.  We spend the most time with von Glasow (a Thalidomide victim himself), as he grapples with his feelings of inadequacy and reluctance to visit a public swimming pool with his daughter.  Another narrative thread follows his attempt to seek restitution from the German pharmaceutical company that marketed Thalidomide.  I would venture to guess that most people, regardless of his or her physical appearance, would be reluctant to agree to such a photo shoot, but the fact that a dozen people with misshapen and/or missing limbs consented to the project speaks volumes.  NoBody’s Perfect avoids being heavy-handed, addressing issues of vanity, body image and courage with equal doses of humor and poignancy.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Chingachgook: The Great Snake (aka: Chingachgook, Die Grosse Schlange) (1967) An East German Western?  You betcha.  From 1965 to 1982, East German DEFA studios produced a dozen Westerns (known as “Indianerfilme”), all starring Yugoslavian actor Gojko Mitić.  Based on James Fenimore Cooper novel The Deerslayer and historical events, Chingachgook takes place in 1740.  Mitić plays the title character, a former Mohican now living with the Delawares.  When the Hurons, a rival tribe, capture his intended, he embarks on a peril-filled quest to rescue her.  He finds a friend and ally in white hunter Wildtöter (Rolf Römer), who shares his distrust for trigger-happy colonists and British soldiers.  Enjoyment of this movie requires a certain suspension of disbelief, considering there wasn’t a single Native American in the cast, or the mountainous territory (filmed in Slovakia and Bulgaria) was incongruous with the region of the story.  But the movie manages to be consistently entertaining thanks to a charismatic lead and a suitably epic scope.  Taken in the right context, Chingachgook is a fun alternative interpretation of the venerable Western genre.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Tears of Kali (2004) This slow-moving, loose horror anthology, comprised of three short films by writer/director Andreas Marschall, deals with mental illness and the dark side of therapy.   The framing segments take place in India with a guru who developed a vaguely described treatment for emotional disorders.  The second segment, about a man with anger-management issues who’s sent to a court-appointed therapist with unorthodox methods, is the best.  It’s squirm-inducing in spots, and there are some good gore effects for the budget, but the film is hampered by its cheap shot-on-videotape look, poor pacing and an atrocious English dub (the DVD’s German Language option doesn’t include subtitles) that adds some unintentional comedy to this somber mood piece.

Rating: **½.  Available on DVD

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Silent Star (Der Schweigende Stern)

(1960) Directed by Kurt Maetzig; Written by Jan Fethke,Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Günter Reisch, Günther Rücker and Alexander Stenbock-Fermor; Based on the novel Astronauci (The Astronauts) by Stanislaw Lem; Starring: Günther Simon, Oldrich Lukes, Ignacy Machowski and Yôko Tani; Available on DVD

Rating: ***½

“…some kind of catastrophe must have happened on Venus… Everything is fragmented, broken.  If it was a catastrophe that changed everything so senselessly, then it must have been a disaster of unimaginable dimensions.” – Prof. Sikarna (Kurt Rackelmann)

People who grew up west of the Iron Curtain might have known East German/Polish co-production The Silent Star by its alternate title, First Spaceship on Venus, which was a staple on late night TV, albeit in a dubbed print, with cut scenes and altered characters.  More folks these days, however, probably remember the Americanized version as it appeared in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  Thanks to the release of the film on DVD, we can now see it in its original, unadulterated form.

Shot in color, 70 mm and stereo sound, The Silent Star represented a significant investment for 14-year-old DEFA (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft) studios, the biggest budget to date (source: DVD essay by Stefan Soldovieri).  It was the first, and most lavish, in a handful of sci-fi releases to come from DEFA, and took a serious approach to the source material.  The screenplay, based on a Stanislaw Lem novel, is credited to at least five individuals, but probably had more hands due to meddling by watchful East German culture bureau officials.  Directed by veteran filmmaker Kurt Maetzig, it’s an optimistic view of humanity’s quest for knowledge, and a powerful allegory for our dangerous flirtation with nuclear weapons. 

When a strange cylindrical object is found in the Gobi desert, scientists attempt to determine its origins.  A thorough analysis of the device reveals it’s carrying a message from Venus.  Although attempts to communicate with the extraterrestrial inhabitants yield no results, the discovery prompts a space mission to the second planet from the sun.  The spaceship Cosmokrator I is manned by a multinational team, including Russian commander Arsenyev (Michail N. Postnikow), intrepid German pilot Raimund Brinkmann (Günther Simon), Japanese physician Dr. Sumiko Ogimura (Yôko Tani) and African (his country is never specified) communications expert (Julius Ongewe).

One of the movie’s greatest assets is the distinctive set design by Alfred Hirschmeier.  The surreal, mist-shrouded Venusian landscape is one of the most distinctive depictions of an alien planet that has been committed to film.  While it’s easy to spot the influence of Forbidden Planet on the look of the strange alien machinery, it’s not too much of a stretch to see how The Silent Star in turn influenced the extraterrestrial designs in Planet of the Vampires, while Omega, a cute little robot on treads, seems to be the spiritual predecessor to R2-D2.  And the stylized design of Cosmokrator I is just kitschy-cool, appearing as if it flew out of the cover of a pulp sci-fi novel.  The visual effects, supervised by Ernst Kunstmann, may appear a bit creaky to modern eyes, but are certainly in step with other genre films of the era, regardless of origin. 

The Silent Star is very much a product of its time and the tense political climate that surrounded its inception.  The filmmakers paint an idyllic socialist future (of 1970) where nations peacefully cooperate for the good of humankind.  This is reinforced by Arsenyev’s statement, which seems to take a subtle jab at the United States: “In a peaceful world we don’t keep our successes to ourselves.”  The film goes on to not so subtly point the finger at the U.S. as the instigator of nuclear Armageddon,* while conveniently ignoring the Eastern Block’s role in the Cold War.  Aside from the clash of Eastern and Western politics, many elements of the film hold up well.  The concept of a multiracial, multinational team of cosmonauts, which predates Star Trek by several years, would not have arisen from any similar Hollywood production of the time.  The universal themes about exploration and cooperation resound today.  It also works well as a cautionary tale.  Much like the Krell in Forbidden Planet, the Venusians in The Silent Star are undone by their hubris and superior technology. 

* The American crewmember, Prof. Hawling (Oldrich Luke) laments his culpability for helping create the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to laugh at the naïve idea that Venus is capable of supporting life.  With surface temperatures approaching 900 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s safe to assume that we won’t be setting foot on the planet anytime soon.  On the other hand, Russian space probe Venera 9 landed on Venus, just 15 years later, so maybe the creators of the film were onto something.  The Silent Star, in its unedited form, deserves a reassessment by Western audiences.  It’s an impressive achievement by any standards, and one of the forgotten science fiction gems of the mid-20th century.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (aka: Nosferatu the Vampyre)

(1979) Written and directed by: Werner Herzog; Based on the novel Dracula, by Bram Stoker; Starring: Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani and Bruno Ganz;
Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“Death is a cruelty against the unsuspecting.  But that’s not what I perceive as cruel.  Cruel is when you can’t die even if you want to.” – Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski)

A remake of F.W. Murnau’s groundbreaking horror classic Nosferatu would seem like a fool’s errand in less capable hands, but Writer/director Werner Herzog pulls off the impossible.  More than an homage or update, Herzog returned to Henrik Galeen’s original script and Bram Stoker’s novel to create his screenplay.  While the original version of Nosferatu was an unauthorized telling of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, with the names changed to distance itself from the source material,* Herzog used the original names from Stoker’s story.  The end result is something at once familiar and different from any other incarnation of the Dracula story.**

* Despite their efforts to conceal their film’s origin, the makers of Nosferatu were sued by Stoker’s widow, and a German court ordered existing prints of Nosferatu destroyed.  Thankfully for Herzog and future generations, some copies survived.

** In his DVD commentary, Herzog claimed not to have seen the Bela Lugosi version.

Herzog cast volatile actor Klaus Kinksi* as Count Dracula, an inspired but controversial choice.  While Herzog had “no doubt” about his decision to cast Kinski in the role, he had to justify his choice to a crew accustomed to the actor’s well-earned reputation for on-set tirades.  Kinski is perfect as the tormented count.  More than a simple mimicry of Max Schreck’s Count Orlok, Kinski paints a canvas of despair, depicting Dracula as a pathetic, lonely creature, distanced from the world of the living.  In his initial meeting with solicitor Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), he laments how he’s lived for centuries, but never really lived.  He watches Harker devour his meal with longing and fascination.  Sentenced to an eternity of pain and solitude, he must repeat the same cursed existence over and over.  Kinski’s Dracula is the antithesis of the romantic creatures that have dominated most vampire films in recent memory.  He’s become something neither man nor beast, a slave to his baser impulses.  When Harker cuts his finger, Dracula lunges at the bleeding appendage with an unstoppable fervor.

* Although Herzog and Kinski collaborated on several films together, their working arrangement was ambivalent at best.  Anyone interested in learning more about the director’s often contentious relationship with Kinski should check out the immensely entertaining (Herzog) documentary, My Best Fiend.

Isabelle Adjani stuns as Jonathan Harker’s wife Lucy.  She appears almost ethereal in her scenes, as a paragon of untarnished beauty and virtue.  As Harker descends into darkness under the influence of Dracula, she assumes the heroic stance to protect the man she loves.  She seems to be the only one willing or able to stand up to the Count, after he moves into their village with the plague in tow.  By contrast, the frail Dr. Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast) appears impotent in the face of evil, even as death surrounds him.  French actor/artist Roland Topor* is also memorable, in his off-the- rails performance as Dracula’s crazed servant Renfield.

* Fun Fact: Topor’s psychedelic artwork formed the basis for the alien world depicted in René Laloux’s animated film Fantastic Planet.

Shot for an estimated $896,000 with a minimal crew, Nosferatu looks like a more expensive production,* thanks to Herzog’s insistence to film on location, rather than sets.  The seven-week shoot took place primarily in Holland, which stood in for the German port town of Wismar, and Eastern Slovakia, for Transylvania.  Dracula’s home was a castle in Moravia.  Instead of employing professionals, Herzog employed many non-actors for supporting roles, including an entire village of gypsies.  The scenes with Harker and the gypsies take on a documentary-style appearance, and their presence lends a certain veracity that could not be conveyed by regular actors.

* At the behest of American distributor Fox, Herzog simultaneously filmed an English-language version with the same crew, although it’s the German-language version that most film fans prefer.

Herzog does away with special effects or other post-production trickery to tell his vampire story, relying on a more straightforward approach.  Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein’s striking cinematography sets the mood for Nosferatu, with images of a foggy desolate beach, rats swarming off a sailing ship, and Harker wandering the shadowy cobwebbed halls of Dracula’s castle.  In one overhead shot, we witness multiple pallbearers and coffins snaking through the streets of Wismar like icy tendrils of death.  In another scene, absurdity and hysteria prevail as some plague-infected residents (played by the film crew) enjoy a brief moment of revelry.

Frequent Herzog collaborator Popol Vuh contributes the dynamic, haunting music score. A funereal chorus presides over the opening shot inside a crypt.*  The audience is then introduced to the peaceful town of Wismar, underscored by placid, guitar-infused music.  The tone rapidly shifts to more ominous sounds as Harker travels to Transylvania, and a return to the plaintive chorus.  Wagner is heard, as Harker traverses unknown territory, crossing foreboding landscapes and mist-shrouded mountains. 

* In another nod to realism versus artificiality, this particular scene was filmed in a mausoleum in Mexico, and featured real mummified corpses.

Herzog’s film is a perfect companion piece (a B-side, if you will) to Murnau’s original.
His poetic vision of Nosferatu compares favorably to, and in terms of character development, even surpasses the original.  It’s deliberately paced, which in most instances could be a fancy way of saying that it’s slow, but that’s not really the case here.  Herzog lets his story unfold in its own time. Uninterested in cheap thrills and special effects, he chooses to ruminate on existence and dwell on the nature of evil. (SPOILER ALERT)  The bleak ending takes a post-modern spin on the traditional conceit that evil was always held at bay by the virtuous and righteous.  Herzog gives no quarter, instead, leaving us with the unsettling conclusion that love, no matter how strong, does not conquer all. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Classics Revisited: Das Boot

(1981) Written and directed by Wolfgang Petersen; Based on the novel by Lothar G. Buchheim; Starring: Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer and Klaus Wennemann;
Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming
Rating: *****

“…you can learn maybe more about the whole vast phenomenon of war if you have just 45 people stuck in a submarine and see how they deal with war and with attacks and with being attacked and everything and at the same time being stuck and not able to run. You cannot just run away. So, it’s more intense than in other war stories because you’re stuck in a claustrophobic situation, no windows, no nothing. You cannot just desert and run.” – Wolfgang Petersen (from 2009 Counter Culture interview)

Das Boot begins with a staggering statistic about the German U-boat fleet in World War II: of the 40,000 submariners who served, 30,000 never returned.  This sets the fatalistic tone for the rest of the film, which systematically deconstructs any romantic notions of serving aboard a submarine.  We’re a fly on the bulkheads of U-96 as the crew members face the specter of death on a constant basis. Writer/director Wolfgang Petersen’s remarkable film, based on a novel by Lothar G. Buchheim, is a nail-biter from beginning to end.

When Das Boot was released in 1981, few films about the German side of World War II   reached American audiences in any appreciable numbers, or made as significant an impact.  For this impressionable viewer, accustomed to years of depictions of the Germans as a soulless, faceless enemy, Petersen’s very human perspective seemed downright revolutionary.  The U-96 crew, thrust into a situation beyond their control, became the faces for all who fought in war, regardless of nationality.  We sympathize with them as fellow human beings.  Capt.-Lt. Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock (Jürgen Prochnow) and crew, with the exception of zealous 1st Lieutenant (Hubertus Bengsch), had no love for Hitler or his regime, but were there for their country and loved ones back home.  They were chess pieces moved by invisible hands, trapped on a board they didn’t create.

Petersen demolishes the wartime hero myth from the film’s beginning.  The desperation and tension, as experienced through the eyes of the characters, is palpable throughout.  In an early scene, we’re introduced to rival U-boat captain, Thomsen (Otto Sander), a burned out, alcoholic, broken shell of a man.  Almost immediately after he’s lauded for his heroics, we find Thomsen lying on a restroom floor, soaked in his own vomit.  Lt. Werner (based on novelist Buchheim), played by Herbert Grönemeyer, progresses from a wide-eyed war correspondent, brimming over with propaganda-fueled enthusiasm, to a grizzled, disillusioned cynic.  In the space of several weeks, he appears to have aged a decade.  While the U-96 is under attack, Chief Mechanic Johann (Erwin Leder) suffers a nervous breakdown.  His haunted eyes convey his plight as no dialogue could, expressing the utter helplessness of being surrounded by water, with no hope of escape. 

As captain of the U-96, Lehmann-Willenbrock carries the heaviest burden of all, carrying out orders that seem progressively more suicidal, while balancing his concern for the safety of his men.  After he torpedoes an enemy ship, he’s forced to ignore the survivors’ screams for help.  In a decision based solely on an objective assessment of available resources, he concludes there’s no room in the cramped submarine for anyone beyond his existing crew.  When a distraught Lt. Werner questions why he left the floundering survivors in the water, the captain responds, “Ask the fanatics who started this filthy war.”  He’s seen enough during his tenure to last a lifetime, with no room for heroics or jingoism.  After his ship finds temporary safe harbor in Vigo, Spain, he rebukes a boisterous freighter captain’s entreaty to regale him with romantic tales of undersea combat.

The filmmakers spared no details to create an immersive experience for the audience.  By the time we have reached the conclusion, we have a sense of what it must have been like to be stuck in the bowels of a submarine for weeks on end, with virtually no contact with the outside world.  As bolts pop and depth charges explode, the crew members’* collective sanity falls apart at the seams. By working within the severe limitations dictated by the realistic submarine interiors, cinematographer Jost Vacano conveys the claustrophobic confines of U-96.  The audience’s sense of isolation is further reinforced by Klaus Doldinger’s atmospheric music score.

* Petersen commented that the cast was prevented from spending time in the sun during filming, to develop a suitably pale complexion.

Das Boot was not without its share of controversy, with some detractors accusing the film of being too sympathetic to the German war effort.  Such superficial critiques, however, turn a blind eye to the primary thrust of the story.  When I first watched the film, I recall feeling a certain degree of cognitive dissonance, but this quickly gave way to insight about Petersen’s underlying intentions.  Feeling for the characters and their predicament in no way diminishes the atrocities that were perpetrated back on German soil, or condones the immoral leadership that initiated the war.  Petersen illustrates how the U-96 crew members were cogs in a military and propaganda machine, which demanded victory at any cost.  Their teamwork under physical and emotional pressure, working under intolerable conditions, says more about the indomitable human spirit than any ideology.  As an audience, we don’t care if they achieve their strategic objectives; we only care if they make it out alive.  Their struggle to avoid annihilation, culminating in one of the most ironic endings committed to celluloid, underscores the futility of war.

Three versions of Das Boot are available: a two-and-a-half hour theatrical version, a somewhat longer expanded cut, and a five-hour movie, which aired as a miniseries on German television in the mid-‘80s.  Which one is better?  The original version works more effectively as a pure action film, albeit more in-depth (pardon the pun) than the typical wartime drama.  The longer versions, especially the five-hour cut, do a fine job of ratcheting up the tension and providing more details about the individual crew members.  The long spaces of daily tedium are interspersed with frenzied scenes of mortal peril.  Whichever version you choose is well worth the investment in time and nerves.  Das Boot succeeds as few other war films have, by maintaining an unrelenting level of suspense while recognizing the awful toll of modern warfare on the human psyche.