A History For Violence

A History For Violence

I hear that the term “Baader-Meinhof phenomenon” refers to something that you keep coming across at an alarming frequency after your first encounter with it. This might sound contrived but unfortunately, that is exactly how I felt when watching Germany’s official entry to the Oscars, Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex (2008). If you’ve watched the first couple of scenes, you’ve probably seen the whole film. Deservedly the least successful of the five nominees, The Baader-Meinhof Complex is an exercise in futility that seems to have wasted great raw material for historical, political and cinematic analysis. And looking back to see that this one overtook Gomorra (2008) is only shocking. Don’t worry, I am not going to give you plot details here. This link gives you all the necessary (and more than that) details about the script of the film!

The Baader-Meinhof Complex is an out and out political film as opposed to personal films with political subtexts. Its course has already been defined by the passage of time. Now, the only creative latitude that the director has in these kind of films is in providing dimensions, motives and moral conflicts to his characters in order to understand them. The director inherits the responsibility to explore the subject, analyze it and provide insights into the events from an arbitrary perspective. Take the case of a film that shares some of the content with this one – Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005). Having got heavily panned for his handling of history in Schindler’s List (1993), Spielberg returns in style correcting all the errors that might have been committed in the latter film. He quite successfully delves into the psyche of a troubled man on whom a national mentality is forced, managing never to be speculative. All the “data” associated with the film – the Munich Olympic massacre, the initiation of the Wrath of God by Mossad and the statistics that would invariably arise with it – take a back seat with minuscule runtime.

Coming back to The Baader-Meinhof Complex. See what plot details Mr. Uli Edel chooses. Activities carried out by the gang, courtroom transcripts, initiation of major figures into the group, counter-terrorist measures of the police team and the members’ trip across the Middle East – stuff that any text book about the period can provide. The only scope of innovation, now, can come in the indoor sequences that actually merge these disparate events. There, too, Mr. Edel does an interpolating job by gathering the consequences of the preceding events and providing the obligatory kick off to the forthcoming ones. Now, a case may be made for the film to be considered as plain “time-pass” or tea-time entertainment, but its own runtime betrays it. One hundred and forty minutes can not be considered a time-pass, especially if the content can be wrapped up in ten.

I’m absolutely OK with on-screen violence if it is used for a purpose – as a motif or as a tool to illustrate additional meaning or at least to imply the futility of it all. In The Baader-Meinhof Complex, the violence is an experiment with the ways a bullet can go through a person. There are probably over a dozen extensively “choreographed” sequences of heavy gunfire and massacre in the film that serve no purpose than to pass (historical) time and to provide some cheap thrills. You can actually predict the routine as in our own mainstream films. SMGs and AKs hog the limelight once the perfunctory events that lead to it are established. It’s almost mathematical in the way the pattern evolves and destinations reveal themselves. You quickly realize how the RAF is, in fact, a shoddy wrapper to the laughable WW2 films from Hollywood, minus the one-dimensional portrayal of the two armies. Yes, credit has to be given to Mr. Edel for at least depicting both sides of the revolution with equal affinity, if not with a reason.

The Baader-Meinhof Complex is a film with fine cinematography, fine editing, fine casting and fine performances but one without a direction. Rather, it is a film with a direction that is already decided by history. As a result, Mr. Edel comes across more as the author of a sensational and often sleazy detailer of events than as a film director with skill or ambition. The Baader-Meinhof Complex is a film without a soul, if you please. If at all Mr. Edel is attempting to say something of his own, it must be that the revolutionaries were as directionless and authoritative as the very system they were opposing. That it was more because of the hip-factor associated with it than the vision of real revolutionaries that anti-establishmentarianism became as widespread as it did. But, except for the last scene that actually salvages the film to a minor extent, these sporadic observations fail to come within the grasp of the film and die off within minutes of birth.

Consider one of the better scenes in the film where the car that Baader steals gets stolen from him immediately after he challenges one of his comrades to flick a purse. There was scope for great analysis following this. In Herzog’s spectacular Cobra Verde (1987), the Kinski character overthrows an existing regime with the help of the slaves of the country only to become its chancellor and indulge in slave trade. A while later, when an associate asks him who the arrested people in the cellar are, he says “Our future murderers”. Here too, a similar situation evolves. It is inevitable that revolution begets revolution. Successful revolutionaries will one day be overthrown by similar kinds. Snatchers will be snatched from. Anarchists will eventually become the system. But the film never capitalizes upon the ephemeral idea. Or the intriguing moment when an officer asks Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz) what perpetuates the evolution of terrorist groups. He replies “A myth”. It sets us ruminating. What myth is he referring to? The Raskolnikovian myth bordering foolishness?  The Guevara-esque romanticism?  Sadly, the film remains completely oblivious to it.


Road to the Oscars?

Road to the Oscars?

The official entries for the Academy Award have been made and as many as 67 countries are vying for the coveted award this year. Among the leading contenders for the nominations are Germany’s The Baader Meinhof Complex, Italy’s Gomorra, France’s Palm D’Or winner The Class, Iran’s The Song of Sparrows directed by Majid Majidi and Israel’s Waltz with Bashir. And the Italian entry is already making waves and being termed as one of the best crime dramas from the country.

The film interweaves five stories of five individuals – all inhabitants of Camorra (the notorious society of Naples known for its criminal activities) – a designer who sells himself to the fake manufacturers of the underground, a kid who fascinates getting into one of the gangs, two teenagers who wish to tackle everything with their newfound arsenal, an illegal businessman who pays the land owners in order to dump industrial waste and a plumber who tries to earn by other means. The narrative crosscuts irregularly from one story to another and it would a miracle if one could remember all five threads during any point in the film. But all this only adds to the harshness that the film depicts.

The basic atmosphere of the clan resonates what goes on there. There is no law, no neutrality and no word called crime. Everyone seems to belong to a gang and the gang wars are the courts that decide the future of the inhabitants. Everyone assumes that they are on the right side and are fighting for a cause. If Meirelles gave us the City of God, Matteo Garrone gives us the City without God. Gomorrah apparently refers to an ancient city that was decimated by God for the immense depravity of its residents. Indeed, it feels like God has deserted the settlement and has left everyone on their own as we see the figure of the Good Shepherd being dismantled and suspended by ropes (a possible nod to La Dolce Vita) as a family moves out of one of the buildings.

As Roy Stafford notes at The Case for Global Film, the locality forms a vital part in the narrative as we see in a fleeting shot that the whole establishment is so geographically close to the rest of the world, yet is culturally isolated from it. And like these structures, the film is completely devoid of any decorations that we see in conventional storytelling. It never once shows the trappings of a tale of crime, punishment and redemption that one expects at the starting of the film. Though it becomes a bit difficult to digest, it does provide the sense of confinement that the characters feel and the absence of any effort to come out of the vicious circle.

Also remarkable is the film’s photography that uses the camera as an active entity rather than as a tool for documentation. Like a thug staring at an intruder or like a dog sniffing a stranger, the camera gets close to the character, almost intimidating him and carefully peruses each one of his moves as if supervising his activities. It chooses to see what it wants and leaves out what it thinks is unwanted. It effectively becomes one of the clan members, even looking over corners and hiding behind people. For most part, the cinematography feels like hand held work, but never becomes nauseating even in the most dramatic moments.

The film is in the news for all the wrong reasons as the author of the book on which the film is based is under a life threat from the gangs of Camorra and a couple of the actors have been arrested in connection to the Camorra case. All this only assure that the director has been successful in exposing the inner working of one of the most arcane societies of the world. With the Academy’s policy towards violent and brutal films drastically changing, Gomorra may well cruise through to the last five and one can be sure that the weak Indian entry Taare Zameen Par has one less slot to compete for.


The view from afar...

The view from afar…

The Oscar Official entries are out (Full list here) and as many as 67 countries have submitted their candidates for the golden statuette – A record number by itself. With the nominations out in January, here is an early look at the major players this year.

GomorraItaly’s tale of the life and times in Camorra, the crime hub of Naples interweaves 5 stories of people living in the area and trying to make a life and name for themselves. The film is already making waves as the author of the book on which the film is based on is under a life threat. Confusing and unconventional narrative keeps one engaged. And the Academy won’t fail to notice such films.

The Baader Meinhof Complex: Consistent performer at the Oscar Awards, Germany’s fantastic portrayal of interconnected lives in The Edge of Heaven may have been overlooked, but this film about the rise of the Red Army Faction during the late 60’s seems to be the favorite especially since the Academy seems to have shed its policy of not embracing violence.

The Class: A sleeper, even for Cannes where it went all the way. It has become a thumb rule that Oscar should not be given to the Palm D’Or winner and The Class may just succumb to that. Another minimalist film, following its Cannes predecessor 4 Months. 3 Weeks and 2 Days, The Class serves as a exhibition of the various cultures and their intersection in the city of Paris. A low chance, but the Academy never ceases to surprise.

Waltz With BashirIsraeli reply to Persepolis follows the life of the director during his involvement in the Israel-Palestine war told in animation. The Academy loves issues – be it cultural or political (conditions apply!) – and what bigger issue at this time than the middle eastern conflict. Persepolis was unfairly ignored and let’s hope Waltz with Bashir makes up for that.

Dream Weavers: Beijing 2008: We’ve all seen it and we’ve all collapsed in awe – the 2008 Olympics in China. Surprising entrant is this documentary from China that follows the Chinese government’s run up to the Beijing Olympics. The film took 5 years to make and hope is that it is as grand as the Olympics itself. But a docu? Propaganda? And China? Fat Chance!

Opium War: Siddik Barmak made an instant mark with his film Osama (2003) and Opium War follows suit that follows life in Afghanistan as a country influenced by both the Russian and American involvement in War. With the film grabbing the top award at the Rome International Film Festival this year, this one comes as one of the dark horses in the race.

The Song Of SparrowsIran’s safest director Majid Majidi is embodiment of consistence and it may be high time he gets another nod after Children of Heaven (1998). The Song of Sparrows follows the life of a man after being fired from an Ostrich farm for his negligence. How the melodrama supporting academy views this one is a question mark. But the profile of the director may just give it the required boost.

Taare Zameen Par: The Indian entry is not exactly a strong contender and may be one of the first films to be weeded out. For a person not new to the Hollywood way of filmmaking, the ordeal of a boy suffering from Dyslexia and his subsequent treatment may be just too typical. Taare Zameen Par edged past contenders like Vallu, Tingya, A Wednesday, Mumbai Meri Jaan, Black & White, Jodhaa Akbar, Rock On and Ghanyam.

The Rest Is SilenceRomanian Follow up to the Cannes winner 4 Months. 3 Weeks and 2 Days is an unconventional movie that depicts how a film based on the Romanian war of independence is made. Part fact, part fiction, the film is being praised in internet circles for its extraordinary art direction and cinematography. We’ll have to wait to hear more about this seemingly strong contender.

Mermaid: Coming of age tale of a girl whose illusions of Childhood are slowly crumbled as she discovers love and the real world may not recreate the magic of Moscow Does not Believe in Tears (1980) at the Oscars, but given Russia’s track record of the Academy Awards, Mermaid seems to be a formidable player this year.

Captain Abu Raed: Jordan enters the race for the first time in its film history and how! Already the winner of the revered Sundance Audience Award and going great guns among the internet forums, Captain Abu Raed is the story of a janitor who is mistaken for a captain by the children in his neighbourhood. He begins to assume the bestowed role and develops fictional stories about his travels to far off countries. This genuine crowd pleaser may just be one of the five the Academy is looking for.

Let’s wait for January.