Cinema of Germany


2019 was a special year for me. I came back to cinema in an abiding way after a break of over three years. It was also this year that I quit my day job to write and translate full time, even if it has mostly been for this site. This second innings of my cinephilia has been more guarded, and I find it hard to be excited about watching this or that film, even if it’s by a favourite filmmaker. Part of the reason for this change, I think, is that I don’t repose as much faith in the taste-makers I was earlier guided by (major festivals, branded auteurs, critical consensus). This has weakened, if not completely collapsed, the structure in my mind of what constitutes important cinema of a particular year. Adding to this is the fact that the way I react to films has changed. In my writing, I see myself responding to certain aspects of a work rather than forming strong opinion on its overall merit. As a result, I’m as stimulated by lesser works with strong moments or ideas as I am by expectedly major projects. Whether this breaking down of hierarchies is a sign of openness to new things or a symptom of waning faith, I don’t know.

            The state of affairs in the world outside cinema hasn’t been easy either. The staggering return of the politically repressed around the world has found an expression in some of this year’s films too (Zombi Child, The Dead Don’t Die, Atlantics, Ghost Town Anthology, Immortal). Personally speaking, the increasingly dire situation in India hasn’t been without its influence on the way I relate to cinema. The brazenness of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has now paled in comparison to the mind-numbing institutional violence towards the ongoing protests against the act. Looking at videos of police brutality on my social media feed, I wondered, as anyone else involved in matters of lesser urgency must have, if writing about cinema at this point even had a personal significance, leave alone a broader, social one. The directness of the videos, the clarity of their meaning and the immediacy of their effect made me doubt whether cinematic literacy—contextualization, analysis, inference, interpretation—was a value worth striving for. Weakening of convictions is perhaps part of growing old, but it makes writing all the more difficult. Every utterance becomes provisional, crippled by dialectical thought. I don’t have a hope-instilling closing statement to give like Godard does in The Image Book, so here’s a top ten list instead. Happy new year.

 

0. 63 Up (Michael Apted, UK)

 

1. The Truth (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan/France)

 

While multiple films this year about old age have presented it as a time of reckoning, Kore-eda’s European project The Truth offers an honest, rigorous and profoundly generous picture of life’s twilight. In a career-summarizing role, Catherine Deneuve plays a creature of surfaces, a vain actress who struts in leopard skin and surrounds herself with her own posters. Her Fabienne is a pure shell without a core who can never speak in the first person. She has written an autobiography, but it’s a sanitized account, a reflection of how her life would rather have been. “Truth is boring”, she declares. Responding to her daughter Lumir’s (Juliette Binoche) complaint that she ignored her children for work, she bluntly states that she prefers to be a good actress than a good person. Behaviour precedes intent in the mise en abyme of Kore-eda’s intricate monument to aging, as performance becomes a means of expiation and a way of relating to the world. A work overflowing with sensual pleasures as well as radical propositions, The Truth rejects the dichotomy between actor and role, both in the cinematic and the existential sense. In the end, Fabienne and her close ones come together as something resembling a family. That, assures Kore-eda’s film, is good enough.

 

2. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)

 

The across-the-board success of Parasite invites two possible inferences: either that the cynical logic of capital can steer a searing critique of itself to profitable ends or that this twisted tale of upward ascension appeals to widely-held anxiety and resentment. Whatever it is, Bong Joon-ho’s extraordinary, genre-bending work weds a compelling social parable to a vital, pulsating form that doesn’t speak to current times as much as activate something primal, mythical in the viewer. With a parodic bluntness reminiscent of the best of seventies cinema, Bong pits survivalist working-class resourcefulness with self-annihilating bourgeois prejudice and gullibility, the implied sexual anarchy never exactly coming to fruition. He orchestrates the narrative with the nimbleness and legerdemain of a seasoned magician, the viewer’s sympathy for any of the characters remaining contingent and constantly forced to realign itself from scene to scene. Parasite is foremost a masterclass in describing space, in the manner in which Bong synthesizes the bunker-like shanty of the working-class family with the high-modernist household of their upper-class employers, tracing direct metaphors for the film’s themes within its topology. It’s a work that progresses with the inevitability of a boulder running down a hill. And how spectacularly it comes crashing.

 

3. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

 

Vitalina Varela is an emblem of mourning. In recreating a harrowing moment in her life for the film, the middle-aged Vitalina, who comes to Lisbon following her husband’s death, instils her loss with a meaning. It’s a film not of political justice but individual injustice, the promise to Vitalina the that men in their resignation and madness have forgotten. It’s also a bleak, relentless work of subtractions. What is shown is arrived at by chipping away what can’t/won’t be shown, this formal denuding reflective of the increasing dispossession of the Cova da Moura shantytown we see in the film. Costa’s Matisse-like delineation of figure only suggests humans, enacting the ethical problems of representation in its plastic scheme. The film is on a 4:3 aspect ratio, but the viewer hardly perceives that, the localized light reducing the visual field to small pockets of brightness. Vitalina is a film of and about objects, whose vanishing echoes the community’s dissolution and whose presence embodies Vitalina’s assertive spirit. Her voice has its own materiality, her speech becomes her means to survival. Costa’s film is a vision of utter despair, a cold monument with an uplifting, absolutely essential final shot. A dirge, in effect.

 

4. Bird Island (Sergio da Costa & Maya Kosa, Switzerland)

 

The bird island of the title is a utopian place, a refuge for those wounded or cast aside by modernity. For sixty minutes, we are invited to look at five people working silently alongside each other in a bird shelter, tending to birds dazed by the airport next door. They don’t ask where these birds come from, nor do they expect them to leave soon. They simply treat the feathered creatures, re-habituate them into the wild and set them free. The reclusive Antonin, the new employee, is one such bird too, and his social healing at the shelter is at the heart of the film. Bird Island is full of violence, natural and man-made, all of which it treats with stoic acceptance, but it’s a work primarily about the curative power of community, the capacity for individuals to coexist in mutual recognition of each other’s frailties. In that, it’s the Catholic film par excellence, an allegory of the origin of religion. It’s also an exceptionally relaxing film to look at. Observing the participants absorbed like Carthusian monks in their individual tasks, even while working in a group, places the viewer on the same meditative state.

 

5. Heimat is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise, Germany)

 

Without question, Heimat is a Space in Time is the best 3½-hour film of the year. Heise’s sprawling experimental documentary uses largely personal documents—letters sent between family members, handed-down private documents—to evoke a broad history of 20th century Germany. As a narrator reads out the exchanges—Heise’s grandfather trying to reason with the Nazi state against his forced retirement, heart-rending accounts from his Jewish great grandparents describing their impending deportation, letters between his parents who were obliged to be in two different places in DDR—we see quotidian images from current day Germany and Austria, urban and rural. For Heise’s family, always made to justify their own place in the country and to never truly belong, the Germanic idea of Heimat seems positively a fantasy. While he reads out his great grandparents’ descriptions of their increasingly impossible conditions of living, Heise presents a scrolling list of Viennese deportees prepared. We try to look for the inevitable arrival of their names in the alphabetical list, our gaze forever deferred. When they do arrive, it feels arbitrary. In other words, what we hear could well be the story of any of the thousand preceding names. Perhaps all of them.

 

6. Slits (Carlos Segundo, Brazil)

 

A worthy heir to Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Slits draws its inspiration from quantum physics to explore patently human concerns of loss, grief and memory. The uncertainly principle it offers is a choice between being in this world, awake to the problems of living, and finding meaning in the elsewhere. Physicist Catarina (Roberta Rangel) makes ‘sound-photos’ to study quantum the properties of light. She makes extreme zooms into a digital image to perceive the noise issuing from particular coordinates. These ‘dives’ enable her to listen to conversations from another space-time. Grieving from the loss of her child, Catarina unconsciously attempts to find closure through her research. But trying to inspect the surface of things from too close, she loses sight of her immediate reality; trying to find solace in the objectivity of science, she ends up rediscovering the great lesson of 20th century science (and cinema): that the observer influences the observation. Shot in high-definition digital video, Slits is to this new format what Blow-up was to photography. It locates in the trade-offs of the medium—between details and stability, between richness of palette and noise—visual correlatives to its key idea of quantum uncertainty. A brilliant, sophisticated work of politico-philosophical science fiction.

 

7. Little Joe (Jessica Hausner, UK/Austria)

 

Of all the recent classical Hollywood riffs in mind, none reinvigorates the B-movie tradition as intelligently or potently as Little Joe. Hausner’s modernist creature feature is a monster movie unlike any other: the dangers of the genetically-modified “happiness” plant that biologist Emily (Alice Woodard) develops is exposed early on, and there’s no triumphal reassertion of mankind to counter its menace. What we get instead is a protracted, total submission of individuality to a hegemony of happiness. Little Joe is many things at once: a multi-pronged attack on the wellness industry straight out of Lanthimosverse, the difficulty of being less than happy in an environment that demands you to be constantly upbeat, the fallout of women artists trying to expunge their maternal complexes in their work and of mothers having to lead double lives. Hausner’s camera appears to have a mind of its own, settling on the space between people, which is what the film is about: the culturally mediated relations between individuals. It’s notable that the titular plant reproduces not biologically but culturally. With its terrific score and work on colour, Hausner turns the cheesecake aesthetic of the film against itself. The result is a film of unusual intellectual density and formal frisson.

 

8. Status and Terrain (Ute Adamczewski, Germany)

 

In Status and Terrain, the German obsession with documentation and due process is called to testify to the dialectical process of historical remembrance. Adamczewski’s gently moving camera surveys the length and breath of public spaces in the Saxony region, once a Nazi stronghold, now seemingly anaesthetized under liberal democracy. Official communication, bureaucratic reports and private testimonies read on the voiceover incriminate the buildings and monuments we see on screen, revealing their role in power struggles through the ages. Just as the documents vie for a narrative on the soundtrack, ideologies once thought dead and buried surface to stake their claims on the urban landscape in the present. Adamczewski moves through 80 years of German history non-chronologically, the collage of information pointing to the living, breathing nature of political belief systems. Nazi detention of political opponents in concentration camps, Soviet retribution and blindness to victims of persecution, rise of neo-fascist groups post reunification and the historically indifferent, bulldozing force of current-day neoliberalism play out on the surface of seemingly sedate cities and towns. Status and Terrain is a sober, bracing examination of the manner in which prejudice becomes writ, which in turn becomes history, but also of the way in which this history is contested.

 

9. Ham on Rye (Tyler Taormina, USA)

 

The premise is a throwback to the clichés of the eighties: a group of teenagers at a suburban school prepare for their prom night. But in Taormina’s sure-handed treatment, this banal event assumes a spiritual dimension. In the film’s cubist first half, different groups of boys and girls make their way to the restaurant-turned-dance hall, where they will take part in rites of initiation into adulthood and experience something like a religious communion. And then, right after this VHS-ready high, a void descends over the film, turning its raptures into a mourning, not for those who have left this small-town existence but for those left behind: disaffected youth drift about the town or going through robotic social rituals, devoid of magic or warmth. It’s a work evidently deriving from personal experience, but one that’s refracted through a formalist lens. The strength of Ham on Rye is not the depth of its ideas, but the vigour of its prose. Taormina’s manifestly personal style emphasizes the surface of things, the idiosyncratic shot division focuses on gestures and minor physical details to construct scenes, and the eclectic sense of music imposes a global consciousness on a narrative that is otherwise extremely local.

 

10. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (Frank Beauvais, France)

 

“Cinephiles are sick people”, said Truffaut. Frank Beauvais agrees. Following his father’s passing and a breakup, Beauvais shut himself up in his house in a trou perdu in Eastern France, and watched over 400 films in a period of seven months. Out of this glut, this sickness that Beauvais calls ‘cinéfolie’, came Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream, a film about looking, made wholly of clips from these 400 movies. Through a rapid, self-aware voiceover, the filmmaker reflects on his self-imposed isolation, his panic attacks, the poverty that prevents him from changing his lifestyle, his complicated feelings towards with political action, the conservatism of those around him and his relationship with his parents. Beauvais’s film is a record of his malady as well as its cure. In its very existence, it demonstrates what anyone sufficiently sickened by cultural gluttony must’ve felt: that the only way to give meaning to the void of indiscriminate consumption is to produce something out of it. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is not just a cinephile’s film, filled end to end with references, but the preeminent film about cinephilia, the solipsistic hall of mirrors that Beauvais breaks down and rebuilds inside out.

 

Special Mention: Gully Boy (Zoya Akhtar, India)

 

 

Bitter Chestnut (Gurvinder Singh)

If cinema could substitute for voyages, it will look something like Gurvinder Singh’s Bitter Chestnut. The film immerses the viewer deep into the sights and sounds of an unnamed village in one of the valleys in Himachal Pradesh, where Gurvinder then lived and worked. The immersion is so total that the film could serve as a comprehensive catalogue of the way of life in the valley. Gurvinder is so fascinated with the textures of the place that the need to impose a fictional narrative on it becomes not just a secondary concern, but a hindrance at several points in the film. Bitter Chestnut is brimming with anthropological facts; the food, architecture, attire, language, occupations and rituals of the community become such important details that the film abandons its putative story half an hour in to become a full-blown documentary, resuming its narrative only much later. We are made privy to a baby’s first shower, the woman-only drunken revelry that follows, an oral history of fire hazard in the village, men and women daubing colour on each other during Holi, a newly-made cupboard moved through a celebrating crowd, not to mention elaborate scenes of the 17-year old protagonist, Kishan (Kishan Katwal), cooking. Even when the film introduces fiction, there’s no drama, Kishan’s low-key anxiety never snowballing into a conflict. Kishan’s family, around which the film revolves, leads a tough life sustained by a variety of occupations—hunting, carpentry, horse rearing, dairy farming, spinning—in addition to Kishan’s father’s and brother’s stints as labourers in the city from time to time. It’s an austere, pragmatic life, only occasionally given to festivals and faith.

Sporting a hoodie and sneakers, Kishan, like the community at large, is facing the slings of modernity. He makes pizzas at a restaurant (Gurvinder’s own, called Cloud Door, in homage to his mentor Mani Kaul) run by an outsider for international tourists. It’s a dead-end job, especially depressing considering that Kishan’s peers are leaving the valley for greener pastures in Delhi. His uncertain desire to move out is counterbalanced by the immediate economic and emotional needs of his family. It’s a modern predicament that goes against the time-worn mores of the valley. It’s also a narrative that hovers untethered over the documentary pleasures of Gurvinder’s film. Bitter Chestnut rests uneasily between two modes: the purity of the world at hand holds Gurvinder back from fictionalizing it too much, while the fiction prevents him from breaking the fourth wall, something which could have made for a richer work. Gurvinder works with simple camera and lighting setups, allowing large chunk of the scenes to unfold in the master shot itself. The participants are all non-actors from the valley playing their real selves. Their reticence before the camera shows when they are made to enact predetermined exchanges, while scenes of them celebrating or performing are more spontaneous. It is, however, the spellbinding (if at times touristy) Kangra district itself, spanning winter and springtime, that is the true protagonist of the film. Along with Amit Dutta’s films, Bitter Chestnut constitutes a distinct cinema of the region. I do nevertheless wonder if this is the kind of film the creator of Alms for a Blind Horse would ideally like to be making.

Status and Terrain (Ute Adamczewski)

Ute Adamczewski’s excellent debut feature Status and Terrain begins with shots of homes, public structures and castles in the Saxony region of Germany. An archival text, spoken on the voiceover, tells us that the region was home to the labour movement of 1933, the backbone of the National Socialists (“Hitler belongs to the Elbe”, states one citation). It was the year that opponents to Nazism, especially Communists, were detained in “protective custody” under the Decree for the Protection of People and State. And it’s these youth clubs and castles that served as preliminary concentration camps for the detainees. And so Status and Terrain establishes its modus operandi early on. All through the film, we will be shown buildings, monuments and public spaces in current-day Saxony, captured in the mournful hues of winter. Read on the soundtrack are documents—official notices from the government, bureaucratic communication between state organs, diary entries and memoirs of the persecuted, prisoner release forms and surveillance reports—related to the structure under consideration: a shut-down notice to a cafeteria that has become a hotbed of subversion, a plea by the wife of a political prisoner assuring her husband’s recantation, an ordinance asking camp detainees to pay two reichsmarks every day for their own detention, a letter from traders around the Sachsenburg camp requesting the state to source supplies from them, a Soviet announcement declaring that Jews shouldn’t be considered the primary Nazi victims, and other such extraordinary communications.

In the film’s dialectical organization, the tumultuous past described on the soundtrack seems to belie the calm image of the present. But, as the description of more recent events are read out, it becomes clear that the present, rather than representing a rupture with the history, bears witness to continuing violence and fascism. This manner of tracing historical trauma in the visible signs of the present isn’t new. In that, Status and Terrain shares DNA with works like James Benning’s Landscape Suicide, John Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind and, closer home, Nicolas Rey’s differently, Molussia and Thomas Heise’s Heimat is a Space in Time. But the present in Adamczewski’s film doesn’t just bear the weight of history, it is an active battleground of ideologies. In the eighty years of German history that Status and Terrain shuttles across, we see that different narratives contest for the same geographical space. After the war, an association of the persecuted wrote a letter to Soviet authorities asking them not to execute Nazis in the same space that Jews were. Antifa and pro-DDR graffiti are as visible as ultra-right-wing imperial flags. A WWI memorial was turned into a fascist monument in 1933, an anti-fascist monument in 1963, a symbol of German unity in 1990 and is now being run over by a supermarket. Like in Alex Gerbaulet’s Shift, all sediments of history over a place seem to be active at the same time, vying for dominance. Adamczewski’s gently roving camera picks up an encapsulating detail: celebratory plaques for great German composers embossed on the ceiling of a castle that was converted to a concentration camp.

The Cordillera of Dreams (Patricio Guzmán)

A return to the permanence of nature might be symptomatic of the desire of old age to distance itself from worldly affairs. But when Patricio Guzmán returned to the Atacama Desert in Nostalgia for the Light, it was to get back to the political past, both personal and national. The approach was reinforced in The Pearl Button, the vast Chilean coast being the subject of Guzmán’s dive into history. The Cordillera of Dreams completes the trilogy, the filmmaker now turning to the Cordillera, the stretch of the Andes mountain range that isolates Santiago from the rest of the world, as the object of his interrogation. “I was busy trying to change society”, says the filmmaker in his characteristically meditative voiceover, “that I was never interested in the Andes; I now see it as a gateway to understanding Chile”. The film is punctuated by awe-inducing helicopter shots of the snow-covered Cordillera, its rocky surfaces and barren, infinite valleys. Woven around these heart-stopping images are interviews with Santiago’s culturati—two sculptors, a singer, a writer and a volcanologist—who discuss the significance of the Andes: the mountains as a watchful mother, a carrier of scents, a muse for artists, a veritable coast that turns the country into an island. For Guzmán, however, the Cordillera stands as a silent witness to the nation’s hidden past. It’s as though the mountains are keeping a secret from me, he says in all sincerity, a secret that might be the coup d’état of 1973.

While a personal work like its predecessors, The Cordillera of Dreams however ventures deep into sentimental territory. The sight of the mountains, admits Guzmán, makes him want to go back to his childhood in this city that nevertheless “greets him with indifference”.  He films the houses and streets he lived in, talks about the making of The Battle of Chile, his detention by the military and his subsequent flight to Europe. He confesses his desire to begin anew and rediscover the life he had left behind. Even in Europe, he says, he’s always been making films about Chile. He seeks to understand this gravitational pull that the country exerts on him through the figure of another filmmaker who did stay back. Pablo Salas is a documentarian who has been recording political happenings around him for 37 years. His personal archive of video tapes and hard drives fills his entire office, and they serve as the suppressed record of Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship. Guzmán and Salas discuss their work and politics at length: the challenges of filming protests, the tyranny of the dictatorship, the ruthless neoliberalist revision of Chilean economy, the inequality and rampant privatization of resources, and so on. Guzmán is wholly admirative of Salas, the man he wasn’t, and speaks of the filmmaker’s large archive as the memory of what was hidden. His own film, though, feels like an obligatory extension of Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button. Part of the reason for the slide is that the Andes remains only a picturesque background to the investigation. Now and then, Guzmán does relate the mountains to history, as with the idea that the rocks from them were used for paving the streets of Santiago, which saw the boots of the military and blood of the protestors. These connections, though, remain far and few, unlike the tightly knit associations of the previous two remarkable works.

143 Sahara Street (Hassen Ferhani)

In a bright, panoramic shot of a desert, a microscopic figure on the left side moves slowly towards a rudimentary structure on the right. The figure is that of Malika, a rotund, elderly woman who lives and runs a shop on a highway just outside the town of El Menia, Algeria, in the Sahara. Malika lives with her cat Mimi and her joint, possessing the absurd address of the title, serves as a refreshment point for bikers and motorists passing by. Malika is an unusual woman, not just in that she’s an old woman running the shop independently, but also in that she’s unmarried, doesn’t have kids and prefers to stay away from her extended family. Her independence needs no extenuating context: when a client talks about newly legislated women’s rights, she lashes out, “I don’t need any rights”. Malika likes music and dance, hates religious hypocrisy and claims she can’t stand other women. The building she inhabits is spare and contains two rooms: a kitchen and a dining area for clients. There’s a fridge but no electricity. Living far from civilization, Malika, whom one visitor aptly christens “the gatekeeper of the void”, listens to whatever the radio can pick up. A petrol station-cum-restaurant is cropping up next door, potentially eating into her revenue. Malika, though, is unfazed, convinced that the new venture will shut shop in two weeks.

Outside of the occasional accident in the vicinity, Malika’s only entertainment and source of interaction is with the people who stop by at her place for tea, bread, cigarettes or soda. The characters are colourful enough: a Polish woman biking across two continents, a group of young men who mount a musical performance for Malika, a couple of imams from Algiers, immigrant workers who have come to Algeria for better prospects, a man looking for his lost brother whom Malika suspects of being a charlatan. Director Ferhani captures all this interaction in simple, front-on shots from a tripod. Inspired by the Sahara, his compositions are strongly horizontal, the desert constantly framed by the edges of doors and windows like a landscape painting. Over the course of the film, we are made intimately familiar as much with the building as with Malika. The various walls of the house against or through which we see Malika are later stitched together with a circular tracking shot around the house. Ferhani does not dissimulate his presence and regularly interacts with both Malika and her clients from behind the camera. Less than a hundred in number, the long shots of the film encapsulate the rhythm of the place, recording action in real time without ellipses. Despite its apparent modesty, there’s a philosophical undercurrent to Ferhani’s film. When Malika is by herself, the passing of time is all the more palpable, her mortality looming large. The infinite space of the desert, devoid of other human presence, invites an interrogation of the meaning of freedom, and whether or not one would trade it for the security of a community.

That Which Does Not Kill (Alexe Poukine)

That Which Does Not Kill does not label itself beforehand, nor does it reveal its modus operandi right away. What it does offer is a series of talking heads, men and women, young and old, black and white, straight and queer, in intimate, homely décor, captured in simple, shallow-focus camera setups. In the first interview, a very soft-spoken girl of about twenty describes her memory of an assault: a man forces himself on her, yet she goes back to his house and they sleep together, and again a third time. The girl is soon revealed to be an actor and her testimony, a text given to her by the filmmaker for preparation. This text serves as a foundation for the rest of the film and the interviewees, all of them actors, narrate details from it as though from personal experience. The women interviewees speak from the perspective of the girl while the two men in the film stand in the shoes of the aggressor. We never know what part of their testimonies comes verbatim from the text, what is imagined and what is a direct expression of the actors’ own experience. Some of them evoke very specific memories, like particular colours or sounds, and some others break down. They step out of character at times to talk to the filmmaker behind the camera, but even so the boundaries are blurred. We aren’t quite sure where the text ends and personal memories of trauma begins.

At the heart of the text is the conundrum of why the girl responded positively to the man’s advances, why she went back to his house after the assault, and why she slept with him a third time. The question baffles the actors at first too, but getting into their role and approaching it through the prism of their personal experience, they understand her actions as a way of returning to a primal scene in order to set a derailed life straight. They characterize this as a shift from feeling shame (of being a victim) to identifying guilt (on the part of the aggressor). The testimonial text, consequently, moves from being a site of mistrust to a space for trust and solidarity. In doing so, the film probes the limits of empathy, conceiving it as a quality that’s not innate, but learned through performance and an active task of interpretation and imagination. An unmistakably post-MeToo film, That Which Does Not Kill problematizes the sureties surrounding sexual violence and trauma. It invokes involuntary excitation, proposes voluntary bondage as a reversal of powerlessness and acknowledges the inevitable contradictions in the memory of trauma, while also asserting the impossibility of forgetting such a corporeal experience. These are issues already part of the discourse, and perhaps the film breaks no new ground there, but it deserves credit for the way it frames the question of public response to survivor testimonies.

Movements of a Nearby Mountain (Sebastian Brameshuber)

Cliff (Clifford Agu) has an eye for old cars. He lives and works alone in an abandoned warehouse in the outskirts of a mining town somewhere in Austria. Like a hunter disembowelling his prey, he dismantles turn of the century models in his warehouse, selling refurbished units for cut rate to local customers or shipping spare parts to Nigeria. Sebastian Brameshuber follows Cliff’s life over several months, observing him working at length, cooking, fetching water, washing clothes, bargaining with customers, chatting with a Nigerian friend of his and driving into town to spot old cars to place his visiting card in. Cliff’s customers are invariably immigrants from Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary or Romania. Neither Cliff or his clientele speaks proper German, and communication happens through a mixture of broken German, English and sign language. While Cliff’s warehouse lies in the penumbra of modern European Union, the shipment of spare parts from Germany to Africa traces a reverse movement of goods in globalized economy. Cliff’s is a life on the margins of capital, in the shadow of the wealth inequality that enables a thriving automobile black market. Even so, he says to his friend that things aren’t as good as they were ten years ago when he moved to this country, and reflects on the possibility of returning to Nigeria to ply taxies.

            Movements of a Nearby Mountain recalls Wang Bing’s Man with No Name in the disengaged manner in which it describes a life in solitude. Like Wang’s modern caveman, Cliff leads a very functional life revolving around business and sustenance. His only social life is in the conversations, perhaps imagined, he has with his Nigerian friend, with whom he observes the paintball arena opposite his warehouse. But unlike the man with no name, he seems to be free of aesthetic or sexual needs, outside of a comment about a pretty girl here or a song hummed there. He feeds a cat in the facility and shaves, but that’s all the outward-oriented gesture we see. More than Wang’s, it’s Flaherty’s Nanook that serves as a reference point here. Brameshuber, however, is confident that Cliff’s situation is self-explanatory and needs no description or context. Though there’s no interaction of the subject with the camera, his film is clearly collaborative and fictionalized, as is evidenced by the decoupage in which Cliff walks into spaces in which the camera is already setup. Besides, the filmmaker has Cliff narrate a legend about the region in which a water sprite promises the inhabitants an endless supply of iron ore in the surrounding mountains. Whether or not the promise was true, Cliff’s dwindling prospects seem to suggest a glass ceiling on the ladder to prosperity.

No Data Plan

No Data Plan (Miko Revereza)

Miko Revereza’s No Data Plan opens with the shot of a train pulling in to a station. The large crowd waiting for this trans-American Amtrak train is mostly coloured. Texts, written from the filmmaker’s perspective, appear on screen. We are told that Revereza’s mother has two phone lines, one without a data plan, in order to steer clear of immigration authorities. We learn that Revereza has been living in the US without papers and is bound to be shipped back to the Philippines if arrested. The entirety of No Data Plan consists of Revereza’s journey on this train over the next two days, even though we never know why he’s undertaking it. The “narrative” unfolds on two fronts. The images are resolutely anti-picturesque, anti-expository. Revereza focuses on the textures of the train: used trays, ketchup sachets, candy bars, sweaters, sunshine and shadows, promotional posters, seat covers, the space under the dining table, assorted luggage, dirty windows and the logos on them. He gets down at every station, filming passing trains or people waiting to receive visitors. There are bits of ambient dialogue captured, and Revereza makes a couple of phone calls and talks for a bit, but there’s no interaction with any of the other passengers. The focus is not on the bounty of the American landscape or the cross-section of the American population on the train, but on the banality of the transit, on Revereza’s disaffected drifting across states in anxiety about the border patrol showing up for an ID check.

The on-screen text, on the other hand, tells the story of the filmmaker’s mother: her past as an immigrant housewife with no life outside home, her affair with a taxi driver, her eloping with him to Nebraska with Revereza’s knowledge, and her current life on the road. The text and the images work dialectically, producing a portrait of (paperless) immigrant life. Like Revereza’s noteworthy short film, Disintegration 93-96, No Data Plan is a film about losing one’s roots, and Revereza’s seemingly purposeless transit scans as the fallout of a disintegrating family. Other obvious points of departure are J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry and Albert Maysles’ In Transit. But the thrust of Revereza’s less sensual, less sociological film—a low-key elegy for a paradise lost—is existential. There’s always the risk of exhibitionism when a filmmaker plants himself so firmly at the centre of his work as Revereza does here. This looming authorial presence in No Data Plan, however, is closer to Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film than, say, Kim Ki-Duk’s Arirang. Revereza’s decision to document his life as an illegal alien, to upload it onto social media and make films out of it is a choice that serves to assert a selfhood that official documents deny.

Searching Eva (Pia Hellenthal)

When Searching Eva opens, we hear ASMR-like reading of chatroom messages about sex, abuse and guilt: some of them grateful and appreciative, some others judgmental. The voice is that of the addressee, Eva. She looks twenty-something, but that’s about everything we can determine about her, for Eva defies definition: she is nothing fixed. Eva has a widely followed online presence, which serves as a rallying point for people feeling alienated from social, sexual norms. On the voiceover—presumably addressed to her followers—Eva recounts events from her life: modelling at the age of 13, her neglectful parents, her sexual exploitation by boys and old men alike, her part time sex work, her desires and diary entries. These chat sessions, seen on screen from time to time, alternate with intimate vignettes from her life: Eva in the shower or in bed with men or women, running free on the subway, moving houses, drifting from one European city to another, going to parties or taking drugs. The generally affectionate images are in contrast with the sordid details of her life. Eva spends time back in Italy with her mother, who takes pictures for her Instagram. She has a warm dinner with her father and his new family. The contradiction makes us wonder whether what we hear in the voiceover is the truth.

The answer is immaterial since, for Eva, identity is malleable, self-determined and entirely arbitrary; a prison to be escaped. Throughout Searching Eva is a suspension of the distinction between performing and being. Eva believes that you are what you pretend to be. She hails from a working-class background, but rejects the idea of fixed work or career, choosing to engage in an activity that will help her survive as long as possible without worrying about money, namely sex work. This sex work is just another facet of what she is, not something that defines her. Looking for apartments, she casually tells one of the current occupants that she’s a sex worker, to her interlocutor’s total disbelief. She services men as part of her work, but sleeps with women “in real life”. In her thorough rejection of biologically, socially determined identities, she inspires her followers (in remote European towns) who feel trapped and suffocated by their body, their sexuality, their past, their environment, their work. The film too never quite fits into the traditional documentary mould. Though leading a transparent, publicized life, Eva is continuously aware of the camera’s presence and sends our voyeuristic gaze back to us. But despite its stark self-reflexivity and multi-mode exposition, Searching Eva doesn’t forestall the feeling that it takes some self-congratulatory pleasure about its own open-mindedness, that if Tumblr had a movie version, this would be it.

Krabi 2562 (Ben Rivers, Anocha Suwichakornpong)

Like The Sky Trembles, Ben Rivers’ collaboration with Thai filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong is a largely fictional, contemplative piece in 16mm and is inspired by the sights and people of the eponymous province in the south of Thailand. This work evolved out of the installation the two filmmakers developed for the Thai biennale, an event referred to in Krabi 2562. The film is a mosaic-like snapshot of the region constructed with a dozen or so characters: a mysterious tourist from another province who may be scouting locations for a film shoot, the petite guide who walks her through the history of important spots, the owner of her hotel who claims to have had supernatural encounters, the old owner of a country house she visits, the proprietor of a defunct movie theatre she finally disappears in, an ad filmmaking crew shooting on an island, and a Neanderthal couple living in the caves apparently in the same time line as the other characters. Not to mention several other outsider figures spending their summer vacation on the islands. Every one, though, seems to have some legend, story or a bit of personal history to recount.

Rivers and Suwichakornpong frame the action from a distance, with the characters of interest typically relegated to the background. Mixing interviews, vignettes of characters engaged in everyday activity or interacting with each other in refreshingly awkward dialogue and shots of the landscape, Krabi 2562 is a freewheeling work that’s always spiralling away from its ostensible plot: the disappearance of the woman. There are also a few “invented” sequences, such as a team of scientists looking for biological samples on the island. Politics is suggested through the sound of soldiers marching through the city and the film opens with an ironic-sounding scene of a school assembly where children pledge their allegiance to the religion, monarchy and the country. But these shards of information don’t necessarily fit together within a single discursive framework. What they evoke are possible histories about the region, where past and present, real and fictional, the living and the dead seem to coexist. This imaginative historiography of the film rests in an uneasy tension with its touristic aspect: though the long, meditative shots of landscapes and human activity capture the rhythm of life particular to the Krabi province, it’s not hard to see that they are also intended as promotional material for the region.

Color-blind (Ben Russell)

Shot in Brittany and French Polynesia, Ben Russell’s Color-blind opens with extreme close-ups of painted canvases that abstract figures in the painting into zones of clashing colours. Flashing on the screen are lines from a letter by Breton painter Paul Gauguin, in which the painter confesses that what appeals to him in this nude portrait of a young girl “on the verge of indecency” are the lines and forms. Speaking about his choice of colours, he adds that, in the mind of the Tahitian girl depicted, the phosphorous colours of the canvas stand for the souls of the dead. Russell’s practice has taken him to different corners of the planet and the ethical challenge in Color-blind remains the same: how does one represent the Other without exoticizing them? His response is to locate his own work critically in an uninterrogated tradition of Western representations of the Marquesas islands. But Russell’s response also involves showing the islanders as living under modern conditions and forms of knowledge. This prologue with Gauguin’s letter, setting up the theme of the outsider’s exoticization of the native, gives way to current day glimpses of the Marquesas islands: a modern music concert, commercialized dance classes, shooting of films with local men dressed in leaves, an old craftsman making a curio in his workshop. These impressions, presented without additional commentary or text, evoke an idea of preservation of tradition predicated ironically on catering to outsiders’ idea of the Polynesian culture.

Color-blind is an exploration of the history of outsider interventions in modern French Polynesian history. The legacy of French colonization is, of course, omnipresent. In a series of interviews, Russell shows a set of cards (presumably a triggering image or colour) to European and native participants, asking them to utter the first word that comes to their mind. Though the ideas are adjacent, there are important differences in nuances between the response in French compared to those in Marquesan (cf: Raúl Ruiz’s On Top of the Whale). A native tattooist talks about the outlawing of the practice by colonisers while a Frenchman expresses guilt over France’s atomic tests on the island. A German scholar discusses the work of historian Karl von den Steinen as the first written history about the Marquesas islands. A while into Color-blind, we get fades into and out of details in Gauguin’s canvases, copies of which hang in a local museum. The juxtaposition of documentary footage from the islands with representation of native bodies in these paintings throws into question Gauguin’s choices, which for all its glowing palette, seems no less colour-blind than the girl whose perception the painter presumes to be colour-naïve. It also places Russell’s own film in the outsider tradition, harking back in cinema to at least Murnau and Flaherty.

Mittelmeer (Jean-Marc Chapoulie)

French artist and filmmaker Jean-Marc Chapoulie’s Mittelmeer opens with shots of the Mediterranean Sea as filmed by closed-circuit cameras mounted on beachside hotels. The images evoke ideas of journey and mythical adventures, and the film is indeed offered as a tribute to Jean-Daniel Pollet’s Méditerranée. But these intimations of the timeless are pierced by history, the shot of a road by the Riviera calling to mind the July 2016 attack in Nice above all. Mittelmeer soon confirms the hunch as it trains its attention on the surveillance of public spaces and the public’s access to this surveillance footage. Like Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button, Chapoulie’s film politicizes the stretch of geography that summer vacationers take to be a site of fun and relaxation. The Mittelmeer in Mittelmeer is a zone embodying the conflicts of our time. It is the burial ground for scores of refugees and immigrants who try to make their way into Europe and thus a border to be surveyed and protected by the state. It is also a preeminent channel of commerce, especially for large oil companies, the movement of goods across waters being more streamlined than that of people. The same containers become housing in the strictly monitored jungle of Calais.

In this regard, Peter Hutton’s At Sea and Godard’s Film Socialism are points of reference. In one passage, Chapoulie discusses the origin of piracy in the sea, relating it with the migrant inhabitants of Arcadia and noting that it was also the origin of theatre. And so he goes, constantly hopping from one set of ideas to another, from the ubiquity of CCTV cameras in public spaces, to the revolutionary theatre of protestors in the Middle East, to the relation of crude oil to history of imagemaking, to early Lumière films of people fishing and vacationing at beaches, to an American company manufacturing a device to detect shooters based on bullet sounds, to Syrian revolutionaries taking down public cameras. To be sure, these are all interrelated ideas, and stimulating ones at that, but there’s no sense that Chapoulie is synthesizing them into an essay with a central line. He constructs the film wholly from existing footage, at times colour-manipulating it, and adds an original sound mix to them, consisting of a multi-genre musical selection and amplified sounds of actions we see on screen. Also present are three human voices. Chapoulie regularly converses with his son about the images on screen, adding an element of fatherly pedagogy and virtual family vacation to the proceedings. There’s also the voice of Nathalie, a friend-collaborator, who furnishes critical commentary and personal musings. I might be underestimating Mittelmeer, but it’s a work that should’ve been better than it is.

Years of Construction (Heinz Emigholz)

Years of Construction is the first Emigholz film I’ve seen, so I don’t have a framework to access this 29th entry in the filmmaker’s Photography and Beyond series. It’s however a very strong work on its own merit. Charting the demolition and the subsequent reconstruction of the Kunsthalle in Mannheim between 2013-2018, Years presents an architecture in flux. There’s no voiceover or text, we don’t get to know anything about the institution or the building, and the film remains vehemently fixed on the material details of the transformation. Emigholz films the building from countless number of vantage points, sometimes with a Dutch angle and always from a non-intuitive point of view. These unusual compositions, nevertheless consisting of strong, expressionistic lines, serve the same purpose as many of the artworks in the museum: to slow down our eyes and force us to reflect on the architecture which is otherwise experienced simply as a negative space to the artwork. Cutting on matching movement, Emigholz accords about five seconds to each shot, no matter the amount or importance of the details it contains. This all-levelling gaze and cubist superposition asks an ontological question: can a building be completely described? But for Years of Construction, another question lies beneath: what distinguishes a building from its surroundings?

Emigholz puts in dialogue notions of indoor and outdoor all through Years. Each of the film’s six segments begins with the museum’s “exterior”—the face it offers to the surrounding city—before moving inside. He films its façade from across the park opposite, while deep-space interior shots of the museum often show the world outside. The statues in the park don’t have the aura that sculptures in the museum have, and this idea of the museum as a context-provider is at the focus of Years. Reminiscent of Berlin in Walter Ruttmann’s city symphony, Mannheim in Emigholz’s film transforms in a manner comparable to the museum: depopulated at first, it serves as a space to be filled, just like how the photograph-like shots devoid of movement in the film’s first passage give way to the busy action of dinosaur-like machines chomping on steel and concrete. Finally, Years explores the intersection between contemporary architecture and sculpture—two domains that have swapped their classical functions—as articulations of space and volume. The museum architecture, like the modernist sculptures in it, modulates visitor movement through and around it. By familiarising us with the building over 90 minutes, Emigholz obliges us to notice it in action when the museum is finally reopened for public in 2018: the sculptures now become the negative space to the architecture.

Karl Valentin’s The New Writing Desk

Bref no. 71; March 2006

This film, Valentin’s third, runs for nine minutes and thirty-one seconds; six minutes and twenty seconds in the copy projected, not at the original speed, but at twenty-four frames/second. This makes our assessment difficult: the acceleration gives too much prominence to stylization. We notice an idea of acting rather than a body language rooted in reality. Impossible to know whether, at the normal speed, Valentin’s acting remains as rapid.

He plays a scribe, may be an accountant (Valentin also wrote the one-act play The New Accountant in 1937) or a transcriber of official documents, happily living through life’s ups and downs, who orders a new writing desk to be able to write on. He realizes the desk is much taller than his chair. He saws the legs of the desk, but imprecisely and a little too much since the desk soon turns out to be wobbly and shorter than the chair, which Valentin then shortens with blows of hammer before sawing the desk again, still too high, and using a drill to further lower the chair even though it’s on ground level. He ends up drilling through the floor and falls on the customer of a barbershop below.

It’s a very simple scenario, based on the logical and the absurd. We are reminded of Ferreri’s Break Up: all Valentin had to do was to take exact measurements so that the desk is at the correct height. But Karl Valentin (1882-1948) milks all imaginable possibilities of a thin scenario, complicating things to the maximum (he sits on the chair by stepping across) and playing ‘village idiots’ (in 1936, in The Chequered Jacket, he unintentionally sells the jacket in which his rent money was tucked away).

Valentin, or tragic misunderstanding, through the comic gloom of poverty and everyday minimalism.

Valentin’s film is based on three acts: outdoors with the delivery men, then indoors—a single long act—with the delivery men and then alone, and finally the “punchline”1 at the barbershop, where the barber is shaving his costumer with a snow-white shaving cream, both men wearing white aprons; proper white suddenly invaded by the dirty white of the dust that falls from the drilled ceiling.

You will have noticed here a theme proper to Mitteleuropa or to Eastern Europe: this scribe is the little cousin to the government officers described by Kafka and Gogol. We clearly see Germany’s mediocrity in the 1900s, reduced to the piddling existence of an impoverished petite bourgeoisie, which we will encounter notably in Murnau’s The Last Laugh. The inanity of the protagonist has to do with that of the slaves of the bureaucratic system.

 

The art of the fugue

But it’s especially Bruegel that the portrait of these physically-deformed beings evokes: the “too big/too small” dialectic that we will later find sublimated in a film made in 1936, The Inheritance (where a couple discards all its furniture before inhering those of distant relatives who turn out to be dwarfs, with beds, chairs and wardrobes of their height, which the couple have to make do with, being completely broke). Next to the tall and skinny Valentin, one of the delivery men is fat and strong, the other seems to be a midget or a kid—an alternation visible right from the first shot in the street, containing extras of similarly contrasting and extreme appearance.

The crux of the film is based on a comic succession of Valentin’s efforts to resolve problems of size. Notice that he’s almost always dressed up in a false or a clown’s nose, which tends to diminish the illusion of reality. He plays with his instruments—saw, measuring tape, hammer, drill—with an assured virtuosity in harnessing clumsiness. Valentin is a practical man, carpenter by training, who lived frugally from this profession in his last years. Objects carry a secondary meaning: crouched or perched on his chair, with a quill over his ear, he evokes an owl on a tree. He plays with his saw as though it were a lyre, a bow to launch arrows with, all of this in a record time that lets us fully appreciate the effect without it being obvious: the art of the fugue. As Isou would say, the chiselling here is as much worked on as the discrepant. All objects are off-screen. He looks for them with a gesture of the hand: this invisible and immediate proximity gives the scene a highly enjoyable, unreal dimension.

The central static shot here is, in fact, made of many successive, similar-looking takes: same axis, same lens and with the same single character. He becomes an indispensable entity, a straitjacket that we can’t escape from any more than from the rigid monotony of the empire of Wilhelm II. The character works his way at the edge of the frame, which doesn’t grow bigger or smaller with respect to him or follow his movements. There are small jumps in continuity, which makes us suspect a positive or a negative damaged over time. But now, these are normal jump cuts that play on contrasts—for example, a woman in evening dress cut to the same woman, now naked—noticeable thanks to the similarity in their contents.

It’s completely against the grammar: Breathless half a century before there was Breathless. The presence of this device can be explained by the fact that there was no cinematic tradition in Germany at that time. The first, mediocre films date from 1910. One could hence do whatever one wanted. Valentin, who started in 1912, is a pioneer and the first auteur of German cinema. And it works just fine. That encourages us to reflect on the value of classical American continuity editing: does it have an ontological value? Or does it turn out to be the simple reflection of a dominant style based on a superficial order and harmony. I lean towards the second hypothesis. We have as proof Japan, whose films constantly cut across the 180-degree line forbidden by the Yankees. Had Germany and Japan won the war, film technique would have been upside-down. Film education, also in the clutches of Wall Street, needs a complete overhaul.

It’s surprising to discover a film so dense and accomplished, so modern and revealing of its time, only four years after the beginning of German cinema. And to think that it must’ve been shot in a day or two. There is even an assistant who enters the frame for a split second; it only shows the amateurism of the shoot.

 

Clown from the cabaret

Valentin’s film art was forgotten or despised for a long time, especially by all the histories of cinema. Valentin is, in fact, one of the great German filmmakers along with Lubitsch, Murnau, Lang, Fassbinder, Syberberg and Schroeter, and better than Pabst, who made one good film out of eight, than Riefenstahl, too pompous, than Wenders, who hasn’t stopped declining in the last twenty years.

He was forgotten because he came from cabaret and theatre, where he had a crazy success. So for many, he wasn’t a real filmmaker, even if only a few of his films are based on his plays, fourteen out of fifty-one, if I’m not mistaken. The same judgment was pronounced on Pagnol and Guitry—Chapin escaped this criticism because there’s no trace of his activity in London. Notice, however, that there isn’t a word written or said in The New Writing Desk:  we just see Valentin opening his mouth frequently for inaudible monologues. The final appearance of the floor below proves that it wasn’t a sketch written for the theatre, where a collapse into another setting would’ve been ruled out. Valentin’s future work—his career extends from 1912 to 1941—certainly gives prominence to dialogue: one thinks of Beckett.

Specificity my ass. What matters is not that Valentin shuttles indifferently from cinema to theatre, with the latter preceding only by five years. What matters is the achievement of a body of work that makes us laugh, that touches us, moves us, overwhelms us, like that of Chaplin (whom he perhaps influenced), through its innovation in acting, its verve, its sense of the absurd and of repetition, its darkness and its bitter outlook towards the human condition and towards the average couple, which he created with his wife, Liesl Karlstadt. He was forgotten because he was “into” short films: fifty in all, of which twenty-nine seem to have been lost. He is the only cinema genius (outside of animation and documentary) to have limited himself to short films, with the exception of The Eccentric (1928).

His sketches for the theatre, à la Davos, à la Dubillard, à la Bedos-Robin, never cross forty pages (The Dance Hall remains the longest). Brevity is often the synonym of concision and perfection, like in poetry. The cinema often attains the highest summits (Puissance de la parole) since it frequently spans the shortest durations, which remains a form of respect towards the viewer, expressing the politeness and the humility that you mustn’t make him waste his time.

Valentin was forgotten because he worked not in noble drama, but in comedy. And the Germanics don’t have a sense of humour. Since Valentin’s retirement in 1941, there has only been one good German comedy, Satan’s Brew, made by Fassbinder. Excepting Lubitsch and Wilder, the defectors, who fall into the category of Jewish humour2, we notice the lack of humour among the “great” Germans. There is no comedy by Lang. Murnau failed with his The Finances of the Grand Duke. A country too cold for laughter, like Scandinavia, which turns out to be slightly better (Dreyer’s Once Upon a Time, Bergman’s All These Women). If the Germans had had a sense of humour, the laughable Hitler would’ve been a fiasco and there would’ve been fifty million fewer deaths.

 

1[Translator’s note] A play on two meanings of the word chute (referring to both a fall and the punchline of a story or a joke).

2Isn’t the Holocaust also the hatred towards laughter, towards a civilization based on life-sustaining humour?

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

 

The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch)

It must take a peculiar artistic temperament to follow up one of the decade’s best films with one of the year’s worst. Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die has no reason to exist except as the by-product of an old pals’ reunion. Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Bill Groundhog Day Ghostbustin’ Ass Murray play cops Peterson (!), Morrison and Robertson respectively. They are the entire police force in charge of keeping order in Centerville, a town of less than 1000 inhabitants with an overpopulated juvenile penitentiary and cemetery. The officers don’t have much to do, except investigate missing chicken and keep an eye on Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), who lives in the woods. That’s only until the town is beset by strange incidents. A practice called polar fracking has reoriented the earth’s magnetic axis, resulting in exceptionally long days or nights. Animals go missing and the dead rise from their grave. Totally ill-equipped to handle the situation, the residents succumb to the zombies one by one. The linear simplicity of structure and composition that begins the film makes way for crippling hipster irony devoid of purpose or pleasure.

Besides this airless self-referencing, The Dead Don’t Die is also strewn with plugs to other films high and low. It’s clearly Jarmusch’s “take” on the now-buried B-movie tradition: the dialogue is expressly tacky (“Next to her dead body?”), the situations derivative, and the gore overdone. The actors are conscious of being in a Jarmusch movie—a stillborn idea that’s exhaustingly reiterated. But the film is invested in nothing, not even its own existence. The subtexts of Romero’s films are spelled out to intentionally keep them at arm’s length. Climate change is played out as a never-ending joke, as is a stilted redneck character played by Steve Buscemi. The zombies are of the most unimaginative kind, roaming around chanting ‘coffee’ (yes, coffee), ‘candy’, ‘drugs’, ‘wifi’ and other easy pickings like that. Jarmusch manages to make every element a grating presence, from the theme song to Swinton’s antics as a Japanophile mortician. Only Sevigny, with her completely misplaced sincerity and a subtle sense of self-deprecating comedy, livens things up in an otherwise dead undertaking.

The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)

In The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio recreates the story of Tommaso Buscetta, a mafia boss from Palermo who turned government informant, leading to the arrest of hundreds of other members of the crime syndicate. The film opens in 1980, the year Buscetta was allowed to flee to Brazil where he’d be later picked up to be coerced into collaboration, and follows him through his “betrayal” over the next twenty years. Bellocchio and co-writers focus on the self-perception of the protagonist as an honourable man, whom Pierfrancesco Favino portrays with solemn dignity. While the mafioso and their workers take him to be a traitor, Buscetta sees himself as the true guardian of the Cosa Nostra tradition and the people he’s denouncing as the true traitors. This self-narrativization, the film underscores, is based on a notion of masculine honour above all else: Buscetta admittedly has a weakness for women (allowing the film to include gratuitous sex scenes); he resists aging and resents his wife supporting him financially in the US, where he’s put under witness protection. He spends his old age in the obscurity of suburban middle-class life, in constant fear of a retribution that never comes.

The 79-year-old filmmaker employs his characteristic, cocky style to dramatize mafia wars. A ticker of the body count flashes on the screen with every murder. Bold, brash texts filling the screen announce important dates and events. The arrest of a boss is rapidly intercut with a trapped hyena. An impressive bombing scene unfolds as a single shot from the back of the victim’s car. But Bellocchio is most attuned to scenes with a theatrical flourish: Buscetta’s deposition and subsequent cross-examinations that were televised. Unfolding in a vast courtroom with Buscetta at its centre and peripheral cells holding the denounced, the trials are filmed in wide-angle shots and echoing sound. Like the opening of Vincere, Buscetta’s composure is contrasted with the agitated, crazy reactions of his rivals. As the denunciations become a regular affair and the public interest vanes, the trials grow modest and the judges less scared of the accused. Despite its baroque touches, The Traitor remains a by-the-numbers biopic, choosing to tread close to history at the expense of insight. There’s another character whose collaboration runs parallel to Buscetta’s, and it is offered in elaborate detail for no other reason than to blink at the audience’s knowledge of the events.

The Golden Glove (Fatih Akin)

If Lars von Trier’s serial killer movie tempered the gratuity of its graphic descriptions with a dialectical organization, Fatih Akin’s The Golden Glove drops another layer from the wall separating art and snuff. Adapted from a novel of the same name, the film follows the exploits of Fritz Honka (Jonas Dassler) between 1970 and 1975, when he murdered and decapitated women in his Hamburg apartment. Unlike The House that Jack Built, The Golden Glove makes no claims to explaining Honka: barely any detail about his childhood, upbringing or inner life. Whatever we glean about this character comes from the faithful reconstruction of his apartment from photographs: the furniture and linen hint at a lived-in homeliness while posters of naked models coexist with chubby, matronly dolls. Instead, we are presented with shots of Honka binge drinking, forcing the women he picks up on street into violent sex, killing them and parcelling their bodies. Akin films the gruesome acts of rape and murder so that the architecture distances us from the events by partially blocking our view. This considered reserve, which sometimes increases the perversity of the crimes, vanishes as the film proceeds and we are treated to Honka’s fits of rage in full intimacy.

What takes the place of individual psychology is social description. Set in the seventies in West Germany, the film—likely following the book—portrays Honka as a product of his environment. Honka is at the bottom of the social pyramid: he works dead end jobs at malls and construction sites, lives in a cubbyhole and spends his money on alcohol. His face deformed after an accident, Honka is ruled out of the dating market as well. His only social life is at the Golden Glove, a seedy joint for freaks and outcasts (any of whom could be the protagonist of the story) whom Akin describes elaborately without affection. The corpulent, old women Honka lures with the promise of alcohol are also outliers of the free market economy with no social support or means of sustenance except through abject slavery. Seeing them showing no will to live and their old bodies being manipulated and mutilated like inanimate objects is the most distressing and repulsive aspect of The Golden Glove. Consequently, it’s liberating to witness the lucky few who escape this fate, thanks either to a Christian missionary trying to “save” the Golden Glove regulars or to sheer accident: a sentiment that the film structures itself around. The uplifting image of a blonde teen whom Honka idealizes unwittingly escaping Honka closes the film.

 

Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)

In Pain and Glory, Almodóvar lets go of the generic framework that imparted a sense of mystery and thrill to his narratives. The film is instead simply the story of a filmmaker reminiscing about his past, patching up broken friendships and coming to terms with his creative and corporeal disintegration. Weakened and frazzled, Antonio Banderas is exquisite in his role as Salvador, a successful movie director who has quit working and chooses to fritter away his time in his swanky apartment. Salvador suffers from a number of ailments stemming from his partially paralyzed back. On the occasion of the restoration of one of his older productions, he reaches out to the film’s lead actor from whom he’s been estranged for thirty years. This contact inducts him into a heroin addiction, which Salvador gladly chooses over resuming filmmaking. His heroin-induced stupor provokes memories of his pre-teen years: the suffering and hardship of his poor parents, his mother’s loneliness and resourcefulness faced with the absence of her husband and the precocious awakening of his sexuality in his relation with an older labourer he teaches. Back in the present, he meets an old lover, whom he unsuccessfully tried to save from drugs, and recounts to his doting secretary-friend his relation with his mother in her final years.

None of this information is offered as a revelation or a piece of a puzzle. Neither are they woven into a causal narrative. This lends the film a transparency and directness that critics, perhaps with justification, are quick to read as confession. The film is populated with references to the filmmaker’s life but also details so particular—his mother breaking a slab of chocolate to make a sandwich, mending a sock with an egg as support, Salvador placing a pillow on floor before bending down to access a safe—that they could’ve come from nowhere except experience. But Almodóvar avoids sentimentalism and undercuts the obvious emotions with counter-intuitive musical cues. When Salvador meets his old lover, there’s a cut across the 180° line that positions this film as a sequel of sorts to Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, heterosexual domesticity being the implied horror connecting both encounters. For the most part, though, the attention is on Salvador’s pain and physical degradation. The film opens with him suspended under water as though in a womb, and the presence of water bodies throughout the film suggests a time before birth. In that, it’s clearly an autumnal reflection on aging that appears to be favourite theme of the year.

Austerlitz

Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz is a typically rich and rewarding examination of the present’s relationship with the past and the commodification of history. Shot in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin seemingly over one summer day, the film centres on tourists who visit the camp either on their own or as part of a guided tour. We don’t follow particular individuals or groups, but the general progression of the film follows the guided tour from the entry to the exit. We observe them through the architectural elements of the buildings on the camp, the double framing producing a necessary distance. The sound mix is dense and complex and picks up various different voices on the site. Guide commentary and tourist chitchat, mostly in Spanish and English, overlap to produce a disorienting palette reflective of modern confusions regarding historical interpretation: a speech about the isolation chambers at the site is overlaid with a tourist speaking about his South African trip, the camp tour perceived as being in a continuum with other vacation activities.

Loznitsa shoots with long lens, which allows him to remain at a distance from the tourists, who hardly notice or pay attention the camera; it’s to the credit of camera placement that he’s still able to get such long, uninterrupted shots, which always begin after the camera has been on for some time. It is also noteworthy that he doesn’t provide us any sights the tourists themselves might be seeing, remains as he does mostly outside the buildings. Austerlitz, like Shirin, is not about the observed but the observer, not about history but the consumption of history. In fact, we are never told which concentration camp we are in; I had to look it up. As is characteristic of the filmmaker, Loznitsa’s meditative and observational film offers no informational text or voiceover, leave alone indications as to what we are to make of these vignettes. A thoroughly non-polemical work, Austerlitz trusts the audience to not only supply the required historical context to understand the images, but also exhibit the moral sensitivity needed to garner insight from them.

The tourists behave as any group behaves in a culturally-significant space. They amble around the site in grudging respect; their blasé body language makes it seem like they are in a forced school trip or a not so amusing theme park. Naturally, they are in casual summer clothes, which includes dozens of message T-shirts. (One guy wearing a Jurassic Park tee is particularly helpful to the film’s cause.) Their mass-market clothing, advertised to them as embodiments of their individuality, turns them—like all of us—into walking banners for corporate branding, and this tension between mass consumption and individual inclination is also present in the way they consume the sights of the camp. Except for a few fleeting moments of solitary contemplation, they are pulled into the rhythm of the guided tour, with its regular snack and toilet breaks. They pose at torture poles and the ovens as they would at an amusement park. Austerlitz, however, does not incriminate them or deem them shallow. It is what it is, and the viewer is free to make his own judgments about their comportment. Loznitsa’s choice to shoot in black and white, in fact, refuses the potentially jarring presence of colours at the site.

There’s clearly a sense that something is missing from the images and sounds of Austerlitz. That something, the negative space of the film, is history itself. The past in Loznitsa’s film exists in an inverted relation to the present, for what we see in the film completely belies our knowledge of the concentration camps. The somewhat frivolous behaviour of the tourists, who dawdle as though they were in a shopping mall, is a negation of the sombreness of camp life. The crowd of tourists is unregulated, moving in all directions. They enter and exit the different facilities of the camp at will. They have food and drink at hand at all times. Most significantly, they possess an abundance of recording equipment that photograph every inch of the site. In contrast, hardly any images exist of the Holocaust, this “black hole of history” in Georges Didi-Huberman’s terms, one of whose defining features is the suppression of any documentation about it. Photography is also an existential act. Photographing a monument is a testament to the photographer being present at that place and partaking in the longevity of the monument, which will no doubt outlive the photographer. In that sense, Austerlitz is a snapshot of our life today, with all its fears and anxieties seen reflected in the Holocaust.

Loznitsa’s work has consistently engaged with the way history is recorded and given shape to. It has brought to surface the intimate relation between history and theatre, between the meaning of events and their appearance. In Maidan, the theatre of revolution is indissoluble from the revolution itself. It is in the form of the protests—the choruses, the banners, the slogans—that people recognize themselves as actors of history. In The Event, the conflict between the revolutionaries’ unsure understanding of what’s happening and the narrative imposed by state apparatus crystallizes into a synthetic vision of history. Both these films centred on a collective recognizing itself through a shared revolutionary identity. In Austerlitz, the tragedy of history resurfaces as commercial theatre. The mass is no more the subjects of history but its consumers. If the Nazis benefited from production at the camps, private and public operators now profit from the mass tourism industry. It is significant that Loznitsa’s film ends with a reference to the Lumières, with the visitors leaving the camp, now a veritable tourist factory. Unlike Lumières’ workers, though, they are in no hurry to get back home. They linger and take selfies at the gate. They are, after all, on vacation. Arbeit macht frei, indeed.

Donbass

Donbass opens in what it calls “Occupied Territory in Eastern Ukraine”. Calling the region that—and not Novorossiya or Donetsk People’s Republic or Luhansk People’s Republic—makes it clear that Loznitsa’s latest fictional film is partisan. The scene is a make-up room and the actress in frame complains about the pay. A woman in military outfit barges in and evacuates the dozen or so people inside. They actors aren’t surprised and rush out as per instruction. The handheld camera follows them in long shots to a location where they wait for further indications. Following the sound of an explosion, the crew is led to the site of a bus bombing, where they enact a TV reportage. The actress pretends to be a shopkeeper who rushed to the location after the blast. Loznitsa has perhaps never been more direct. This revelation of the mise en scène of false flag terrorism and manufactured news in Russia-backed secessionist Ukraine, which boomerangs back on its participants later, spells out both the filmmaker’s sentiments and the film’s modus operandi.

Donbass is divided between “Ukraine” and “Occupied Territory in Eastern Ukraine”, but spends most of its time describing life in the occupied region. Like Loznitsa’s first feature My Joy, the film is a series of aborted vignettes, stubs that vanish after they’ve served their purpose. This employment of interruption as a stylistic element helps the film paint a mosaic-like picture of the region and liberates it from the need to give a narrative envelope to such disparate threads. After the opening bombing, we move to a maternity hospital in which the new official-in-charge denounces his predecessor’s crimes while being in cahoots with him, a drama during a Ukrainian political meet where one libelled lady pours a bucket of goo on a political leader, a reportage of people living in bunkers in the occupied territory, an anticlimactic meeting between a Christian pacifist and a newly-minted official, an ingenious description of corruption where the new army hijacks cars of businessmen and extorts money from them, a confrontation of the insurgent soldiers with a visiting German journalist whom they denounce as fascist, the punishment of an erring soldier by the rest of his regiment, assorted scenes at various checkpoints, exchanges among common people in the bus reminiscing about their losses in the war, and several other scenes and stray incidents. Loznitsa trains his attention on the power trips common people willingly embark on given the chance.

But Donbass is not some falsely-neutral study of the human condition; it clearly takes sides without reducing the complexity of the matter at hand. It is Loznitsa’s documentary eye that nuances proceedings. In the film’s most remarkable detour, we attend a partly-grotesque, partly-endearing wedding in a registrar office in the occupied region—the first wedding in the self-proclaimed Novorossiyan union. Two “revolutionaries” are getting married and their uniformed, gun-toting comrades are here to wish them. The incredible energy of the scene apart, what registers is the attempt of a fledgling nation trying to define itself through rituals and symbols: the Novorossiyan marriage certificate, the national flag, the national anthem and the patriotic hails. Similarly, in another scene, a captured Ukrainian soldier is displayed at a bus stop, where the public humiliates and assaults him. There’s a hint of sadism in Loznitsa presenting the discomfiting affair in its entirety, but the stories of the people accusing the captive of rigging mines that killed their near and dear are equally distressing. In this sequence, setting image against sound doesn’t cancel them out; it enhances their truth value. In both scenes, it isn’t clear whether Loznitsa is critical of the participants in the ceremony. His success lies in making us look for values beyond that question.

Like Austerlitz, Donbass is full of shots making and unmaking themselves: we see elements constantly filling and emptying the frame. This alternation of density and rarefaction gives the film a rhythm akin to breathing, as does its combination of highly nervous action and anodyne conversations. Despite its scattershot narrative, we are always sure of where we are and what the dynamics between characters are. This is partly because the filmmaker guides our attention by placing the Ukrainian and Novorossiyan flags in nearly every shot. Loznitsa is a filmmaker with a remarkable eye for large groups of people, and Donbass contains several shots of individuals vanishing into the crowd or coming out of it. In one scene, we see people having set up camp outside a police station, dinner table and all. It’s a succinct image of the transitional period of revolution, right in line with the film’s thematic interests. The regiment without a chief, the maternity hospital with conflicting leaderships, the army unit without official funding, all point to a nation in the process of defining itself. A country in its mirror stage of development, it could be said, if only Loznitsa weren’t such a materialist.

The SquareRuben Östlund’s The Square realizes that satirising contemporary art world is the easiest thing to do. So it makes up for it with a paralysing nuance that comes across as taking two steps forward and one backward. Östlund’s ambivalence towards his subject is apparent from the first scene. An uninitiated American journalist (Elizabeth Moss) asks the director of a contemporary art museum, Christian (Claes Bang), to explain a piece of curatorial text written in artspeak. He mumbles something about the context of exhibition, which the journalist accepts without question. The scene is supposed to be a sendup of the inscrutability of modern art, but the text the journalist reads out sounds legitimate, as does Christian’s response. This scene is followed by shots of the demolition of an old, imposing sculpture at the museum’s entrance whose place a modern work called The Square will take. This destruction is supposed to be read by us as sacrilege. But later in the film, Christian explains the meaning of The Square to his kids through family anecdote in a way that makes an authentic case for the work.

The artwork in question, The Square, I believe, is a genuinely interesting installation, and belongs to the family of contemporary sculptures that converts the hallowed halls of the art museum into a public space of confrontation. A four metre by four metre square of LED lights, it carries the following motto: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” Östlund follows up this on-screen statement with shots of the homeless in Stockholm. The blunt juxtaposition brings out the real problem with The Square and its utopian intentions: access to the museum itself is a question of social status and the mutual trust the work seeks to foster is in effect upper-class solidarity. On the other hand, Östlund refuses to see the museum or the art world as a monolith. The young marketing executives who come up with an awful, exploitative ad campaign for The Square are lampooned directly, but Christian is a well-rounded character shown to be capable of empathy and change.

Christian, though, is embedded in a power structure that he consciously makes use of. When a subordinate of his refuses to run a personal errand for him, he threatens the young man by turning it into a question of professional trust. He sleeps with the journalist well aware of the equations at play. He has preconceived notions about those living in low-income housing and doesn’t realize the implications of accusing everyone in an impoverished, immigrant-dominated apartment complex in order to zero in on one person who’s stolen his wallet and phone. At the same time, he comes out of his cocoon to own up to his mistakes and to trust others. When he loses his daughters at the mall, he entrusts his shopping bags to a homeless person. In a video-taped apology to an immigrant boy grounded at home because of his accusation, Christian displaces personal culpability into sociological abstractions, but finally takes his two daughters with him to meet the boy in person.

It would be more fruitful to see The Square not as a satire but a set of qualified observations about contemporary art and its institutions. The film understands museums as cultural establishments run like corporates needing to balance their role as proponents of progressive values and purveyors of artistic expression. When Christian is forced to give a press conference about the offensive promotional video, he’s taken apart by both socially-minded liberals and “defenders of free speech”. Christian’s existence is so sophisticated, so wrapped up in layers of irony and simulation that he becomes unable to tell the real from the artificial. He prepares his impromptu speeches in advance, even their improvisational bits. The gets taken for a ride by a con job at a public square, but is unfazed by the real violence taking place during a performance act. The Square’s single most important insight might be this: interpersonal trust in public spaces, all but killed by increased social inequality, can only resurface as parody in art museums for those with no need for it.

The most evident syndrome of this malady afflicting modern art establishments appears in a grand dinner scene in which a male performance artist (Terry Notary) wanders naked in imitation of a primate amidst tuxedoed patrons of the museum. At first amusing, his doubly-performative act turns out to be an escalation of hostilities culminating in a real attack on a woman. In this return of the repressed, the implicit social-behavioural contract of the museum space breaks down and the patrons are hard put to find an appropriate response to the aggression—a crisis paralleling the emotional violence the museum inflicts on the world around through its publicity campaign and the impossibility of the outside world to proportionally react to it.

The film’s cinematography is reminiscent of Lanthimos’ work in its unstable, dynamic compositions employing the architectural elements of the museum. Östlund’s chops as an entertaining filmmaker is apparent in the dinner scene and the thrilling sequence where Christian delivers the letters as his subordinate tries to protect their car from curious street hawks, passages pregnant with impending violence. But the film is also full of open threads and pointless sequences seemingly left loose for the purpose of ambiguity. The film maintains an air of mystery only because it constantly contradicts itself, afraid to look like a newspaper cartoon about modern art.

Western

In Western, Valeska Grisebach poses a series of interlocking power relations between characters and their communities that sets in conflict their individual selves and their group identities. Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) is part of a German crew trying to setup a power plant in the woods of Bulgaria near the Greek frontier. The raw material for construction hasn’t arrived yet arrived at the site, so the crew spends its time lazing around on the river bank, knocking down beers, hitting on women of the nearby village, plucking fruit from private compounds and generally driving around at night. The men even plant a German flag to mark out their territory. Meinhard, in contrast, goes into village to get to know the residents. Over time, he makes friends even though he doesn’t speak Bulgarian. He helps them out with building wells in the village and, in turn, Adrian, one of the villagers, lets him use his horse and even has his nephew teach Meinhard to ride.

Supposedly an ex-legionnaire, Meinhard is a wanderer with no family or home. His reaching out to the villagers is an attempt at belonging to a place and a people. But what Western demonstrates is that, connect though he might with the residents, Meinhard will never be able to escape the larger identities circumscribing his individual, personal behaviour. The villagers refer to him as the German. They bond with him through positive clichés about Germans. One of them breaks ice with him using German military anecdotes. Meinhard, in turn, doesn’t realize that his symbolic gestures of belonging—giving his pocket knife to Adrian’s nephew, taking part in gambling, threatening a local lynchpin when he roughs up Adrian—align him along certain fault lines within the community. As an outsider, he can only see the village as a monolith to assimilate into, but doesn’t realize that his status as a higher-paid, well-travelled, working-class man from a developed country situates him in a complicated dynamic with the village residents; that the welcome the villagers extend him is precisely predicated on him being an outsider.

Meinhard’s relation with the crew, meanwhile, deteriorates just as he develops a rapport with the villagers. His German colleagues don’t like him hanging out late in town, pursuing women they’re after, or preventing them from using the village’s scanty water source. Like with the soldiers from Herzog’s Signs of Life—a work that Western alludes to—their worst instincts come out when they’re subject to boredom and lack of purpose in a foreign country. One of them justifies the flag-hoisting and points out that they’re the ones helping Bulgaria develop. After an untoward, selfish incident, Meinhard warns his crew chief Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek) that he’d kill him if such things happen again. Meinhard’s severity alienates him from his own kind, but his self-effacing liberalism doesn’t exactly allow him to become one with the villagers. He’s left stranded at the end, dancing alone at a country festivity in a parody of communal participation, like many a tragic hero of arthouse cinema.

Grisebach constructs her film as a series of convivial scenes of groups of people conversing over drinks and food—this applies both to the Germans and the Bulgarians in the film, united in spirit in their desire to belong to a community. The passages of the film where Meinhard spends time with the villagers are tender in their imagination of the possibility of language not being a barrier in human relations. A film unfolding at a particular place and time, Western nevertheless functions as an encapsulation of larger political drifts (and, in this, it recalls the other recent, incisive film about the crisis of the EU, Toni Erdmann): the dubious promises of mobility offered by the European Union, the transition of Bulgaria from communism to a neoliberal order, the westward migration of its citizens for better prospects, and the living echoes of German-Bulgarian wartime relationship. The focus, as with many German films, is the weight of national history on individual consciousness.

Toni Erdmann

Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is what the American president would call a world-class loser: a divorced, middle-aged man living with his ailing dog, eating frozen food and making ends meet working at an old-age home. He makes occasional visits to his old mother, plays pranks and has a sense of humour only the viewer can understand. When his dog dies, he goes into crisis and flies into Bucharest to be with his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). Ines is too busy with her consultation project that’s helping an oil giant outsource its jobs – a term that her client doesn’t want uttered. By his appearance and wilful behaviour, Winfried sticks out in Ines’ corporatized mise en scène – an endless alternation of offices and business meetings masquerading as parties – and is sent home after a costly faux pas. Out of desperation or concern – we don’t know – he decides to stay back in Bucharest and shadow every move of Ines’. The objective: to jolt his daughter out of her Hamster-wheel existence. Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann takes the familiar scenario of estranged relationships and gives it a new life by fleshing it through a series of set-pieces brimming with incident.

With his loose T-shirt, unkempt, flowing hair and split spectacles, Winfried is clearly a pathetic figure, midway between Fellini’s clowns and Lisandro Alonso’s inarticulate loners. The film doesn’t pretend that he’s any more than that. He has no self-esteem, his jokes and the schtick with the false teeth fall flat. So do his attempts at playing the wise fool, his views on what’s important in life revealed to be vague and incoherent. For Ines’ birthday, he gifts her an off-the-shelf cheese grater. It’s only partly a joke. When she’s understandably taken aback, he shows her the wad of Euro bills attached to the grater and says that that’s the actual gift. He realizes that each of the two gifts is more offensive than the other, each serves as alibi for the other. This kind of double act, one insuring against the failure of the other, is typical of Winfried, who leads a kind of ironic existence. He’s always pretending to be someone else, pretence being his way of guarding himself from hurt. In the first scene, he asks a courier to wait at the door, only to come back as “his brother” to collect the package. We see him in costume and make-up throughout the film, weaving stories about himself and others.

Pranking is the only way Winfried can keep the world and himself at bay, but it is what helps him connect with his daughter too. After he forgets to wake her up for an important dinner, Ines all but forces him to go back home. That evening, she complains about him to her girlfriends at a party when Winfried, now sporting a suit and a wig, barges in as Toni Erdmann, a high-profile “life coach”. Toni is a parody of the corporate type, the only one that Ines understands or has time for. Toni encounters Ines wherever she’s with her coterie, thus authorizing himself with all her contacts. Through the figure of Toni, Ade’s film puts in confrontation Winfried’s open approach to life with the fakery of corporate culture, both staking claims on Ines’ time and energy. While Ines’ company wants her to be more charming, throw parties to show that she’s cordial, and basically imitate real life in order to succeed in business, Toni appropriates a corporate way of being, forcing Ines’ to take responsibility for him whenever he’s around. In a spoof of “bring your kids to work day”, Ines is obliged to take her father along with her to an important meeting because he’s handcuffed her to him, a favour he returns by dragging her to a middle-class Romanian family’s Easter gathering and coercing her to sing.

The film is hence centred on Ines’ “thawing”, her movement from her self-denying role as the perfect corporate middle-manager to her role as Winfried’s daughter. Fed up with having to put up a façade, she breaks down just before her big party for her Romanian colleagues, spontaneously turning it into a prank and acknowledging her inheritance. It’s an original set-piece, moving in an organic fashion from sad to weird and finally to hilarious and Sandra Hüller aces it. As much as Simonischek’s Wilfried is a type, Hüller contained response to him saves their dynamic from becoming one. The big outburst that the viewer expects never comes and is instead sublimated in a song Ines belts out. Ade dedicates dozens of shots just to observe the unique way Hüller moves. There’s an amazing shot of her working the zipper of her dress with a fork. She often reacts to Winfried’s excesses with an inward withdrawal, with accelerated blinking and subtle inflections of her posture. Though her Ines is expected to be on top of things at office and at dinners, she proves eminently capable of tuning out of her surroundings – a nuance in performance that makes final passage of the film where she spends an extended moment with her father entirely credible. It’s apposite that the film ends with her blank stare.

Toni Erdmann comes in the long line of humanist films championing the outcasts and deadbeats – that historically-bound section of humanity out of step, voluntarily or not, with the forward march of capitalism. Ade’s film is sensitive to class differences both within Winfried’s extended family – everyone tolerates him with a plastic smile – as well as between Ines and her surroundings in Bucharest. Ines is there in Romania as part of a larger project to take it out of post-communist doldrums, to bring the country up to speed with the rest of the European Union. But the oil industry is privatized, malls are running empty and jobs are going away. Ines and her clients seem to be in a bubble untouched by these details, meeting each other at upscale restaurants and pubs far from Romanians and Romanian life. So, Winfried’s uninvited intervention also has for result the breaking of this bubble. Ade’s intelligent and empathetic film plays out in a handful of languages and is a veritable snapshot of the European Union in all its promises and failings.

You Were Never Really Here

Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is a muscular psychological thriller, less successful than We Need to Talk about Kevin but cut of the same formal fabric, that revolves around Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran turned hitman, who specializes in bringing back abducted girls. Joe is known for his brutal but effective, seamless operation. Joe lives with his old mother in their New York home, likes a certain kind of candy and shops for his weapons in supermarket. His latest mission is to rescue the teenage daughter of the local senator who’s being held captive at a city brothel. Joe infiltrates the facility, kills the keepers and frees the girl, but she’s soon abducted again by an army of henchman sent to eliminate Joe and everyone close to him. He learns that the senator has been killed and that these men have been sent by the governor who’s running the whole racket. Joe decides to get into the governor’s house and rescue the girl again.

This is Ramsay’s first film set in New York and the milieu heightens the echoes the work gives of Taxi Driver. You Were Never Really Here is, in fact, in constant dialogue with Scorsese’s film. For one, both deal with ex-marines trying to integrate back into civil life and who experience a strong revulsion towards the condition of the city and the political figures exploiting it. Both protagonists see innocence embodied in the figure of the white, blond teenager forced into prostitution. And both films feature several shots of the lead male topless, their vulnerabilities exposed. But while Taxi Driver depicts Travis’ descent into hell rather graphically, You Were Never Really Here is insistent on eliding violence. All the violence in Ramsay’s film is only suggested, never shown. A shot of Joe punching a drug dealer is filmed from the side with only Joe visible, the viewer not allowed to identify with the aggressor but observe him from a distance. The entire shootout at the brothel is presented as CCTV footage cut to “Angel Baby” in monochrome and without a single violent visual. Joe’s final raid at the governor’s house is implied through tableaux of the aftermath.

But the more crucial reversal with respect to Taxi Driver lies in the film’s treatment of masculine self-image of the hero. Travis counters his powerlessness in face of the inhuman machinery of the city with a bloody fantasy of triumphal reassertion. Like many of Scorsese’s films, Taxi Driver plunges the viewer right into the lead character’s mind-space and lets the viewer sort out the implications. Ramsay’s film, on the other hand, affords the viewer a distance. Joe has glimpses of a childhood memory flash by now and then: his psychotic father brandishing a hammer, looking for his mother hiding under the table, while kid Joe stands helpless. This helplessness is reinforced in another series of flashing images: his inability as a soldier to prevent the murder of a girl by a teenager over a chocolate bar. This fear of having inherited his father’s toxicity and his repeated inability to save women under duress feeds into his anxiety as a rescuer of abducted girls. Joe’s (unintentionally humorous) self-flagellating reproaches of being weak is a far cry from Travis’ putting up news items lauding a local hero. The fount is corrupt: the men have failed, it’s up to the women to save themselves.

Like in Kevin, Ramsay appropriates horror movie tropes, employing them to illuminate urgent, personal concerns. Ramsay’s associative editing, which connects different elements of the film in unusual, subconscious ways, isn’t as visceral as it was in Kevin, perhaps because the flash inserts are all neatly tied to Joe’s war trauma, but it’s still uncanny in the way it’s hinged on flinch-inducing sensations: sand on feet, candy in mouth etc. You Were Never Really Here invokes film history without that awareness weighing down on it too much. The spirit of Hitchcock’s Psycho looms large and is pertinent given Joe’s obsession with cleanliness and his tortured relationship with women, his mother in particular. There are also recalls from The Searchers, Le Petit Soldat and Kevin itself. A man Joe fatally wounds holds his hand during his final moments, an existential truth that reappeared in cinema the following year, more successfully and less preciously, in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, another film about a resentful ex-serviceman trying in vain to get back to normal life in a city that doesn’t make it easy.

2015 was a fine period for me. I went to the Mumbai Film Festival, something that I’d been meaning to do for some time now. I could also go to Experimenta to meet and interact with several interesting artists and curators. I wrote a little more at this blog than I had last year and I also started a blog in French that I hope to write more for in the coming months. I watched fewer films and read fewer books than any of the preceding few years. (I had read more books and seen more movies in the first 6 months of 2014 than I did in the whole of 2015.) Yet, I had a much more wholesome experience these past 12 months. For one, abstinence made movies better, providing me the necessary mental space to deal with them more meaningfully. But more importantly, my rejection of the voracious cinephilia that I was practicing helped me better integrate the films I watched with real world experience and further disabuse myself of the notion that cinephilia is a worthy activity in itself. As a result, I could give films their proper place in my life – an act of relegation that ironically made them more valuable. I think I harmonize myself better with the world around now, which I am convinced is what any ‘-philia’ worth its salt should ultimately be about. I look forward to further cutting down on films and books the coming year.

The year was full of surprisingly good films. Besides the following list (strictly consisting of works that world-premiered in 2015), I was really, really impressed by the masterfully-directed Carol (Todd Haynes), the nervous energy-dynamics of Standing Tall (Emmanuelle Bercot), the perspective-bending Scrapbook (Michael Hoolboom), the structural intelligence of Interrogation (Vetrimaran) and the fascinating image-making and commentary of The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos). Other films I liked very much are The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien), Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg), Digging for Fire (Joe Swanberg), Masaan (Neeraj Ghaywan), My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin), My Mother (Nanni Moretti), Night Without Distance (Lois Patiño), Results (Andrew Bujalski), Sleeping Giant (Andrew Cividino) and the three cine-essays by Mark Rappaport.

 

1. Francofonia (Aleksandr Sokurov, France)

 

FrancofoniaAt a time when Daesh funds itself by trafficking cultural artifacts and Europe announces asylum for threatened art works, Sokurov’s marvelous, piercing film offers nothing less than a revisionist historiography of art itself. For Francofonia, History is not the content of art but its very skin. Museums flatten time, and justifiably present their contents as the highest achievements of a culture, obfuscating, in effect, their history as objects involved in power brokerage, class conflict and market manipulation. Sokurov’s film flips this perspective inside out, identifying art as being frequently the currency of diplomatic power possessing the capacity to purchase peace and as being instruments in service of totalitarian collaboration. Napoleon, who made art the object of his wars, perambulates in the Louvre alongside Lady Liberty Marianne, personifying the antipodal instincts of not only this emblematic institution, but also of European civilization itself. Sokurov’s complex film, likewise, holds together with great equanimity and curiosity antithetical views of museums, acknowledging simultaneously their timelessness and particular historical meaning(s). Francofonia poses questions about nationality, ownership and, really,  the value of art and leaves your head whirling with its far-reaching implications, making sure that you will not approach art the same way again.

2. No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, Belgium)

 

No Home MovieThe jeu de mots in the title says it all. Not only is this deeply death-marked, Ozuvian film an unordinary home movie, but it is also a film about not having a home. Composed of footage shot in the filmmaker’s mother’s Brussels apartment and recorded video-conference sessions between the two, No Home Movie contrasts Akerman’s professional nomadism with the perennial confinedness of her mother Natalia. Between Chantal’s constant off-screen presence and Natalia’s self-imposed captivity (within the apartment as well as the computer screen), between Here and Elsewhere, lies the film’s true space – a part-real, part-virtual space of filial anxiety and affection. Akerman’s matrilineal counterpart to Porumboiu’s The Second Game (2014) investigates heritage and origin as the director meditates on what she has inherited from her mother – a reflection that continuously brings Akerman back to an examination of her own Jewishness. A document of physical decline and decline of the physical (“Je t’embrasse” over Skype), the film crystallizes a collective Jewish narrative of eternal exile through the personal history of the director’s mother, while vehemently refusing to reduce the unique being of Natalia Akerman the individual. Akerman’s harrowing swansong is cinema’s own Camera Lucida.

3. Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran)

 

TaxiTaxi opens with a shot of downtown Tehran photographed from the dashboard of a car. Announcing Panahi’s first cinematic outdoor excursion since his house arrest in 2011, this shot sets up the dialectics that would define the film: home/world, individual/social and freedom/captivity. Through the course of Taxi, the spied-upon filmmaker drives around the city in the guise of a cabbie, chauffeuring clients-actors from various strata of the society, and realizing a pre-scripted scenario with them whose urgent, didactic purpose can’t be more obvious. The Iranian state has forged a private prison for Panahi from the public spaces of Tehran, allowing him a mobility and false freedom that’s regulated by its watchful eyes. Panahi turns this power dynamic upside down, transforming the private space of the vehicle into a public space for debate, discussion, instruction and critique. Watching the film, I was constantly reminded of that saying beloved of Wittgenstein: “It takes all kinds to make a world”. Panahi’s very presence in the film – his image, his voice – becomes an audacious act of political defiance, a gesture of tremendous existential courage that stares at the possibility of death floating in the air. Taxi makes cinema still matter.

4. The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzmán, Chile)

 

The Pearl ButtonA beautiful marine cousin to Guzman’s previous film, Nostalgia for the Light (2010), The Pearl Button turns its attention from the arid stretches of the Atacama to the waterfront and ice field of Southern Patagonia. Threading metaphor over metaphor, the director fashions a typically associative, richly suggestive essay film that turns the nature documentary form on its head. Guzman’s film plumbs the depths of the ocean, trying to uncover traces of suppressed, unseen history embodied by countless “missing people” – a project that derives its impetus from the filmmaker’s bittersweet childhood experience of the sea. Despite Chile’s economic indifference to its 4000-kilometer-long coastline, he notes, the sea has been indispensable those in power, serving first as the entry point of the European invaders, who wiped out the Patagonian natives, and then as the dumping ground of political prisoners during the Pinochet regime. Guzman teases out the different values that the sea holds for him, the autochthons and the Chilean state, in effect politicizing and historicizing that which conventional wisdom takes to be apolitical and ahistorical: geography and the perception of it. The result is a film of immense poetry and horror – a horror that only poetry can convey.

5. Shift (Alexandra Gerbaulet, Germany)

 

ShiftThe most impressive debut film of the year, Alexandra Gerbaulet’s ambitious, intoxicating Shift excavates the evolution of her hometown, Salzgitter, along with that of her family with archaeological care and scientific detachment. In Gerbaulet’s heady narration, anchored by a powerful, quasi-declamatory, rhythmic voiceover, Salzgitter’s transformation from a Nazi mining stronghold and concentration camp, through a waning industrial hub and to a nuclear waste dump parallels the gradual disintegration of the Gerbaulet family under the weight of unemployment, sickness and sexual repression. The filmmaker closely intercuts photographs and diary entries of her mother with impersonal material from popular and scientific culture, weaving in and out of both registers with ease. Gerbaulet’s film is literally an unearthing project, as the director scoops out the various historical, political and geographical layers of this war-weathered city whose tranquil current-day model housing sits atop a makeshift Jewish graveyard consisting of camp workers buried using industrial debris. “Man gets used to everything, even the scar”, declares the narrator bluntly. Shift unscrambles such a habituated view of things, observing the tragicomic tautologies in which history revisits the city. The more you dig, it would seem, the more of the same you get.

6. A Century Of Energy (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal)

 

A Century Of EnergyOne of my favorite films of the year is a commercial for a major power corporation made by a 106-year-old artist. Manoel de Oliveira’s last work of his 84-year long career revisits his second film White Coal (1932), a documentary about power generation at the Central Hydroelectric Plant at Ermal, Rio Ave, founded by the filmmaker’s father. The silent film is projected indoors as a string quartet and a trio of ballerinas interpret the film in the space before the screen. Oliveira moves beyond the primary purpose of chronicling the evolution of renewable energy in the past century, charting the evolution of cinema itself during this period. Splicing together shots from the older films with images of the same locations today, he synthesizes a densely dialectical film that brings into dialogue silent movies and talkies, film and digital cinema, youth and old age and power and grace.  Part tribute to the legacy of his father, part meditation on his own long life and transformed perspectives, Oliveira’s film is celebration of the beauty of forms, natural and man made, whose final shot – ballerinas moving like little windmills at the crack of dawn – captures something like pure energy – a supremely befitting parting shot.

7. Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy, USA)

 

SpotlightThomas McCarthy’s dramatization of Boston Globe’s exposé of child abuse in the Church is a robust, smart procedural that is less about picking apart the Catholic establishment than about elucidating the epistemological processes of the Information Age. Set at the transitional period between print and online news media, the film underscores the soon-to-be-outmoded physical nature of journalistic investigation. There are no antagonists of the traditional kind in Spotlight. The only obstacles to the knowledge required to carry out the exposé are the numerous procedures and institutional protocols that have for objective the protection or publication of information. It is telling that the entire film is about a pack of newswriters seeking information that’s already out in the open. What’s more, the film recognizes that the Spotlight team’s attempts to mount an institutional critique is itself inscribed within kindred ideological biases, operational strategies and structural iniquities of Boston Globe as an institution and that the metaphysical crisis that their story can potentially wreak amidst readers is but similar to the disillusionment the newsmen experience vis-à-vis their Protestant weltanschauung. With relatively uncommon formal and ethical restraint, McCarthy crafts an arresting film about how a society’s narratives are made, predicated they are as much on the dissemination of information as on their marginalization.

8. The Event (Sergei Loznitsa, Russia)

 

SThe Eventergei Loznitsa’s formidable follow-up to Maidan (2014) furthers the earlier film’s exploration of the aesthetics and mechanics of revolution, capturing a people coming together to make sense of a political limbo. Without context or a framing perspective, the film drops us straight into the streets of St. Petersburg just after the attempted reactionary coup d’état in Moscow in 1991. Confusion and mundanity – not heroics and determination – reign as we observe the formative process of a people’s movement and the imagined/imaginary social glue that causes individuals to cohere into a group. State apparatuses compete with each other for imposing a narrative onto the events, while the very toponymy of the city becomes an ideological battleground. Working off priceless archival footage, much of which is incredibly reminiscent of the filmmaker’s own cinematographic style, Loznitsa provides an invaluable glimpse into the unfurling of history, chronicling how numerous banal, unsure gestures and actions snowball into Historical Events. If Eisenstein’s better-than-the-original recreation of the October Revolution was the abstraction of materialist history into ideas, Loznitsa’s film, taking place at the same Palace Square 63 years later, rescues history from the reductions of ideology and brings it right back into the realm of the material.

9. In Transit (Albert Maysles & Co., USA)

 

In TransitA remarkable American counterpart to J. P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry (2014), In Transit unfolds predominantly as a series of interviews with a mixed bag of travellers on board The Empire Builder, a long-distance passenger train running over 3500 kilometers and spanning almost the entire width of the United States. The accounts of passengers seeking out professional and financial breakthroughs evoke the pioneer myth hinged on a “Go West” imperative while the stories of those aboard in search of their ‘calling’ demonstrate the essentially spiritual, even religious nature of their pilgrimage-like journey. The diversity and range of the interviewees and their interactions help the film depict the train as a miniature America, à la Stagecoach, and carve out a quasi-utopian space in which members across class, race and gender divides get an opportunity to converse with each other without personal baggage. Nonetheless, In Transit is less a cultural vision of a possible America than an existential meditation on what makes people embark on these journeys. One elderly war veteran remarks that he’ll never be able to see these plains again. To cite John Berger, “the desire to have seen has a deep ontological basis.

10. Wake (Subic) (John Gianvito, The Philippines)

 

Wake (Subic)One of a piece with Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010), Wake continues its precedent’s important investigation into the ecological consequences of the presence of America’s largest military bases in the Philippines during most of the 20th century. Like Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007), Wake is guided by the spirit of Howard Zinn’s approach to history and sketches an economically-founded account of US-Philippines political and cultural relations – a history that seems to be have been lamentably wiped off from the Filipino national consciousness. Gianvito juxtaposes images from the Philippine-American war with current day images from the contaminated Subic naval base area, suggesting, in effect, the poisonous persistence of an agonizing, unacknowledged history. Wake is imperfect cinema – unwieldy and resourceful – and employs fly-on-the-wall records, talking heads, on-screen text, photographs and news clips to mount a potent critique of a historiography defined political amnesia and economic opportunism. More importantly, it is a necessary reminder that imperialism is not always about presence, action and exercise of power but sometimes also about the refusal of these very elements, that history is not only a matter of events but also processes and phenomena and that geography is always political.

 

Special Mention: Chi-raq (Spike Lee, USA)

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