Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Berlin School

I recently watched four films by the German filmmaker Christian Petzold: The State I'm In (2000); Ghosts (2005); Yella (2007); and Jerichow (2008). The first three are fascinating, but less than completely satisfying. The fourth makes a quantum leap beyond them. I had seen Jerichow before, when it made a powerful impression; today, it registers as a wonderful, perfect little film. All four are well worth seeing.

I've had a peculiar experience with Petzold. On the one hand, I'm riveted by the precision and rigor of his style: the intelligence of his compositions, the confidence with which he handles shot duration, the sharp surprises in his cuts, and the masterful, exhilarating control of his mise-en-scène. Watching these films do their work is to be immediately reminded of the stylistic flabbiness of most films. But the content of the first three films -- their narratives, characters and themes -- while promising and interesting, struggles in vain to equal the marvels of their style. Jerichow succeeds by molding and developing that content with the same scrupulous discipline and care that Petzold devotes to film form. In its multidimensional political critique, Jerichow achieves a great, stirring resonance that travels well beyond the film's specific narrative and characters.

Despite my reservations, Petzold's films have made me extremely curious to see and learn more about the films of the "Berlin School." The three filmmakers most closely associated with this "school" are Petzold, Angela Schanelec and Thomas Arslan. Michael Sicinski writes in Cinema Scope:

Without any intention whatsoever, Petzold has become a kind of figurehead for the Berlin School much in the way Andrew Bujalski has been reluctantly appointed the global ambassador for “mumblecore.” What Petzold, Arslan, and Schanelec do have in common is the fact that they studied filmmaking at Berlin’s dffb, an intellectually rigorous film school guided at the time by [Harun] Farocki and fellow film-essayist Hartmut Bitomsky. Aside from these two Berliner forefathers, and the three dffb graduates, the “movement” fans out all over Germany, also encompassing directors associated with Revolver magazine, such as Christoph Hochhäusler, Benjamin Heisenberg, and Ulrich Köhler, and other non-dffb filmmakers such as Maren Ade, Aysum Bademsoy, and Maria Speth, all rendering the “Berlin School” tag quite misleading. Nevertheless, Petzold has achieved a level of international exposure and acclaim which thus far exceeds that of any other director working under this umbrella, and so, within certain circles of international film discourse, Petzold’s work ends up being at least partially understood as an ongoing referendum on the ultimate value of this broad swath of German counter-cinema. Does it or will it have the staying power of the New German Cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s? Is it an appropriate antidote to big-budget junk like Downfall (2004) and withering mediocrities like The Lives of Others (2006)? Are Petzold and the “Berlin School” the future of German cinema, or is Fatih Akin?

The "Berlin School" film that has most recently fired my curiosity is Christoph Hochhäusler's The City Below, thanks to Sicinski's review of it. Alas, it doesn't appear to have acquired US distribution yet. (Hochhäusler keeps a German-language blog called "Parallel Film.")

Here are a few more useful links to writings on the "Berlin School":

-- Ekkehard Knörer's invaluable overview piece in Vertigo magazine;

-- Marco Abel's equally indispensable essay in Cineaste, and his interview with the articulate Petzold (wonderfully titled "The Cinema of Identification Gets on My Nerves"), also in Cineaste;

-- Dennis Lim's New York Times article;

-- A "Berlin School" retrospective at Cinematheque Ontario, and Andrew Tracy's essay at MUBI on the occasion of the series;

-- The text "The Berlin School -- A Collage" at Senses of Cinema;

-- Steve Erickson's review of Yella at Baltimore City Paper; and a blog post at Kamera.

I'd love to know from you: Any "Berlin School" filmmakers or films you especially like or would like to recommend? And any thoughts on this "movement"?

* * *

Speaking of German-language cinema-related artifacts, Victor Perkins wrote me a note recently to share news of a Max Ophuls discovery he made "on a visit, or pilgrimage, to Saarbruecken":

In a bookshop opposite the plaqued house in which Ophuls grew up I enquired in case there were new German books on MO that I should know about. Instead of a book the owner sold me a cd which turns out to be major treasure. It offers a recording of the 1954 broadcast from Sudwestfunk, Baden-Baden, scripted and directed by MO based on Goethe's Novelle. It has Oskar Werner as narrator and a distinguished cast including Kaethe Gold. The music is adapted from works by Haydn. Even those whose German is non-existent, or yet more primitive than mine, would be taken by the intricacy of the relations between narration, performance, effects and music. It was clearly a labour of love for Ophuls, and a supplement to the broadcast gives us Ophuls himself commenting on his dedication to Goethe and his aims in the broadcast.

pic: Christian Petzold's Jerichow (2008)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

TIFF 2010: The Round-Up


Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, USA)

Big Favorites:

The Four Times (Michelangelo Frammartino, Italy)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujica, Romania)
Promises Written in Water (Vincent Gallo, USA)

40-year-old Film That Threatens to Blow Everything Else Away:

A Married Couple (Allan King, Canada, 1969)

Must-See -- Can't Say More Upon First Viewing:

Film Socialism (Jean-Luc Godard, France)


The Sleeping Beauty (Catherine Breillat, France)
The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz, Portugal/France)

Strong, Fascinating:

Poetry (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea)
You Are Here (Daniel Cockburn, Canada)
Boxing Gym (Frederick Wiseman, USA)
Guest (José Luis Guerin, Spain)
The Ditch (Wang Bing, China)

Still Pondering:

I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhang-ke, China)

I Regret Not Being Able To Schedule:

Silent Souls (Aleksei Fedorchenko, Russia)
Oki's Movie (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
ATTENBERG (Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece)

* * *

A few weeks back, we had a lively and fascinating conversation about the institution of film festivals. Now let me turn my attention to the intersection of film festivals with the personal.

As I was attending TIFF this year, scurrying from one screening to the next, a question often occurred to me: For me -- for a cinephile -- what is the relationship between the experience of watching films at a festival a week or two out of the year, and watching them at home the other 50 weeks of the year? What are the ways in which a festival experience can productively inform -- indeed, transform -- one's 'normal' mode of watching films?

I ask because I find that attending a high-quality, intense, immersive film festival often seems to put my mind and body, without my immediately realizing it, in a special zone. I find a heightened perceptual awareness setting in -- a sharpened sensitivity to all audiovisual detail in each film I see (assuming I've had enough sleep!). I'm sure this is aided in no small measure by the great projections and the respectfully quiet audiences. The social, film-cultural context also plays a great role: I see films in the company of cinephile/critic friends and acquaintances who have traveled from near and far. Their not-negligible financial investment in the project of 'doing the festival' is more than matched by a strong intellectual and emotional investment in this experience. If we can call a cinephile a film-lover who is especially distinguished by possessing an active engagement with cinema, festivals can be a crucible experience, a distilled form of this engagement.

There are other factors contributing to the film-cultural richness of the festival experience. Filmmakers are frequently present for Q&A's, shedding light on (or sometimes confounding) our takes on their films. In recent years, I've stayed in close touch with many other critics and cinephiles, meeting up with them to discuss, intensively and often in great detail, the films we see from one day to the next. The Internet has also been an invaluable tool in this process: I check blogs, Twitter, and Facebook daily in order to tweak my schedule, dropping some films, adding ones that suddenly appear promising. (Michael Sicinski's TIFF reports at Cargo and MUBI, for instance, were a precious resource for me this year.)

Now here's something curious: Not only does the festival experience make for a special, super-active engagement with cinema, I find that it also exercises a healthy hangover, an extended influence upon viewing habits once I've returned home. I become a little more disciplined about recording my thoughts upon seeing each film, I make it a point to google up criticism on each film afterward, I make a better effort to discuss the films I see with others, and the amount of cinema-related reading I do also sees a spike. Unconsciously, I suspect, I'm trying to replicate, or at least approach, the intense level of involvement I experience at the festival. The challenge, of course, is to sustain these practices, from day to day, for the rest of the year!

So, I'm wondering: Personally, as a cinephile, what are the things big and small that you value about the film festival experience? And I'm curious if this experience in any way alters or influences the way you watch, talk or write about films in the days and weeks upon your return? Finally, are there any lessons that the crucible of the film festival experience can teach us -- lessons that we can apply to our 'normal' film-watching lives? I'm eager to hear your thoughts and accounts.