Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Venice Film Festival, 1 - 11 September 2010

The 67. Venice Film Festival opens tomorrow.

What follows is a listing of the films showing in the International Competition:

USA, 103'
Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

Italy, 93'
Ascanio Celestini, Giorgio Tirabassi, Maya Sansa

USA, 98'
Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Benicio Del Toro, Michelle Monaghan, Laura Chiatti, Simona Ventura

France, 103'
Marina Fois, Elodie Bouchez, Roschdy Zem, Nicolas Duvauchelle

Italy, Germany, France, 118'
Alba Rohrwacher, Luca Marinelli, Filippo Timi, Isabella Rossellini, Maurizio Donadoni

Russia, 75'
Igor Sergeyev, Yuriy Tsurilo, Yuliya Aug, Victor Sukhorukov

USA, 75'
Vincent Gallo, Delfine Bafort, Sage Stallone, Lisa Love

USA, 121'
Shannyn Sossamon, Dominique Swain, John Diehl, Fabio Testi

Spain, France, 107'
Carolina Bang, Santiago Segura, Antonio de la Torre, Fernando Guillen-Cuervo

France, 166'
Yahima Torres, Olivier Gourmet, André Jacobs

Chile, Mexico, Germany, 98'
Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers

Canada, Italy, 132'
Dustin Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver

Italy, France, 204'
Luigi Lo Cascio, Valerio Binasco, Toni Servillo, Luca Zingaretti, Michele Riondino, Francesca Inaudi, Anna Bonaiuto

Italy, 106'
Silvio Orlando, Giuseppe Battiston, Corrado Guzzanti, Cristiana Capotondi, Stefania Sandrelli, Kasia Smutniak

Japan, 126'
Kôji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Iseya, Goro Inagaki

France, 103'
Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini, Karin Viard, Judith Godrèche, Jérémie Régnier

USA, 104'
Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson

Usa, France, Italy, Israel, 112'
Freida Pinto, Hiam Abbass, Willem Dafoe, Yasmine Al Masri, Vanessa Redgrave

Poland, Norway, Hungary, Ireland, 83'
Vincent Gallo, Emmanuelle Seigner

Japan, 133'
Kenichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi, Kiko Mizuhara, Kengo Kora, Reika Kirishima

Greece, 95'
Ariane Labed, Vangelis Mourikis, Evangelia Randou, Yorgos Lanthimos

China, 122'
Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Li Bingbing, Tony Leung Ka Fai

Germany, 120'
Sophie Rois, Sebastian Schipper, Devid Striesow

For more information, please log on to the website of the Venice Biennale by clicking here!

Monday, 30 August 2010

Heat and Dust, James Ivory, UK 1983

Having recently watched James Ivory's Heat and Dust again, it occurred to me that much as the 1980s was the decade when the Holocaust started to become a topic in German films, it was a trend that had its equivalent in British - and to some extent also US - cinema in a look back to the colonial age: Heat and Dust (1983), Passage to India (1984), White Mischief (1987), and Out of Africa (1985) are probably the most prominent examples of films produced with UK or US coin that are set in a an erstwhile British colony, usually India or Kenya. What all four films have in common is that they mock the arrogance and ignorance of the British towards the countries they had claimed. Perhaps, occupied would be a better word. But more interestingly, three of the above examples - Heat and Dust, Passage to India, and Out of Africa - follow a similar pattern inasmuch as a number of central characters are identical in all three films.

Judy Davies as Adela Quested in David Lean's A Passage to India (UK/ US 1984)

For starters, in all three examples the main protagonist is female: Olivia in Heat and Dust, Adela in Passage to India, and Karen in Out of Africa. Moreover, Olivia, Adela, and Karen all arrive with an indifferent, if not superior, attitude towards their new country but gradually come to appreciate it, perhaps even prefer it to the country of their birth, much to the distress of the emigre community, which, as a result, increasingly shuns them. However, in all three cases, one renegade member of this emigre community stands by them when literally all other members of this community have turned against them: Fielding's support for Adela has its parallel in Harry's for Olivia in Heat and Dust and Berkeley Cole's for Karen in Out of Africa.

Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen and Robert as Denys Finchatton in Sydney Pollack's Out of Africa (US 1985)

Additionally, Adela and Karen also have a native male sage as their confidante - Godbole and Farah respectively - whom they go to for guidance and advise. But most importantly, the marriages of Adela, Karen and Olivia all fall apart as a result of the impact their adopted country has on them. Much to the outrage of their fellow countrymen and women, Adela and Olivia even fall for a native - Aziz and The Nawab respectively - while Karen's choice of Denys is equally frowned upon for although he's not a native he might as well be. Denys makes no bones about preferring the company of the natives to that of his compatriots whom he considers inferior and arrogant, an attitude Karen is to adopt over the course of the film.

Greta Scacchi as Olivia and Christopher Cazenove as Douglas in James Ivory's Heat and Dust (UK 1983)

Adela and Karen both return to their homeland after things had come to a head. Olivia, however, chooses to remain in her adopted country, though by deserting the emigre community, opting for a life in solitude in a remote place up in the mountains. While Karen wants to settle in Kenya out of curiosity ("At least we'll have been somewhere"), Adela and Olivia are indifferent upon their arrival in India as their main reason for going is to join their husbands. However, the experiences and the people they encounter in their new home leave their marks on them and at the end Adela, Olivia and Karen are no longer the same person they were upon their arrival. Like a rite of passage, living abroad has changed them, made them stronger, and they've become all the more interesting and fascinating for it.

What I don't know is, if these similarities in the narratives of those three films are merely a coincidence or if, for instance, one screenwriter took their cue from another. From my own research on German-Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, I do know, however, that women found it far easier to settle and integrate themselves into their adopted country than did men. While of course, Adela's, Olivia's and Karen's experience can hardly be compared to that of the Jews being driven out of their home country, the ability to adapt to a new one can. Hence, it may not be a coincidence after all, to find women at the heart of these colonial narratives which are, in their essence, about migrating from one country to another, for that's where they historically belong.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Portrait: Hannelore Elsner

German actress Hannelore Elsner was born in 1942 in Munich.

She is probably little known beyond the German borders, despite the fact that she's been making films since the age of 17 and continues to have a strong presence in German cinema and television while quite a few of her films have also been released abroad.

Hannelore Elsner: A class act

To audiences outside Germany, Elsner might be best known for her collaboration with Oskar Roehler in Die Unberuehrbare (Nowhere to Go, Germany, 2000) and, more recently, her leading part in Doris Doerrie's Cherry Blossoms (Germany 2008).

Hannelore Elsner and her co-star, Elmar Wepper, in Doris Doerrie's homage to the films of Japanese director Yasuhiro Ozu, Cherry Blossoms (Germany 2008)

Hannelore Elsner in Roehler's Die Unberuehrbare. Roehler's film is based on the life of his mother, Gisela Elsner who, it should be added, was not related to Hannelore. Roehler's mother committed suicide in 1992.

But Hannelore Elsner also starred in Dani Levy's acclaimed Alles auf Zucker (Go for Zucker, Germany 2005), a comedy about Jewish identity, which was hailed by the German press as the first Jewish-themed comedy since 1933 and became an instant success in and outside Germany.

Hannelore Elsner with Doris Doerrie and Patti Smith at the dinner following the opening of the Berlin Film Festival in 2008

Hannelore Elsner in March 2007, outside the Jewish Cultural Centre in Munich. Hannelore participated in an evening to commemorate the life and work of Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger, a German-Jewish poetess who perished in December 1942 in the Michailowska concentration camp.

Hannelore Elsner walking the red carpet at the opening of the Berlin Film Festival 2009

Hannelore's most recent role was playing the mother to German rapper Bushido in a biopic about his life, Zeiten aendern sich (Times Change, Germany 2010).

Hannelore Elsner, seen here with Bushido at the Munich Film Ball in 2010

A picture from what is, perhaps, my own personal favourite Hannelore Elsner film: Vivere (Germany 2006), by Angelina Maccarone. Like Go for Zucker, Vivere also revolves around identity. Set in Cologne, which is Maccarone's home town, Elsner plays Gerlinde von Haberman, a homosexual woman of a certain age who's been deserted by her lover. Aimlessly wandering through Cologne, Elsner comes across Francesca Conchiglia, a cab driver, trying to come to terms with both her sexuality and her identity as the daughter of first generation Italian immigrants.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Das Leben Ist Zu Lang (Life Is Too Long), Dani Levy, Germany 2010

Today, Dani Levy's new film Das Leben Ist Zu Lang (Life Is Too Long) opens nationwide across Germany.

More than one critic has already compared Levy's new film to the comedies of Woody Allen. Like Allen, Levy, too is Jewish, and so is alter ego in his new film, Alfi Seliger, played by Markus Hering. More than this, Seliger, like Allen, wears glasses.

Any questions?

In Life Is Too Long, Seliger is on a downwards spiral, professionally and personally. Levy obviously has a field day poking fun at Seliger's many mishaps while along the way, these cause Seliger to reflect on his life and its meaning.

I don't think it's presumptuous to assume that Levy's new film - besides being inspired by Allen's work - also contains some autobiographical clues about Levy's own life, although Levy's rather successful career can in no way be compared to that of the unfortunate Seliger. Levy's film, Alles auf Zucker (Go For Zucker, Germany 2005) swept the Germen Film Awards in 2006, garnering no less than six major awards. Levy's last, Mein Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler (Germany 2007), was a succes de scandale (or would calling it a succes d'estime be more to the point ...?) for being the first - German - film to treat the subject of Hitler comically rather than in a critical and serious context, although it was later widely agreed that Levy's film was way too tame and lacked, in fact, a dash of irreverence. So as if he hadn't dared to go were no one - in his home turf, at least - had gone before.

For Life Is Too Long Levy has assembled an impressive cast, including Meret Becker, Veronica Ferres - who plays a Russian ding-dong willing to do everything for a part - Heino Ferch, and, of all people: Elke Sommer, who came out of her retirement in Beverly Hills to participate in Levy's film.

For a trailer (in German) of Life Is Too Long, please click here!

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Remembered: Lilli Palmer

Lilli Palmer was born Lillie Marie Preiser in 1914 in Posen in what was then Germany. Her father was a surgeon at Berlin's Jewish hospital, her mother an actress. Against her father's wishes, Lilli would soon follow her mother's footsteps and study drama with Ilka Gruening and Lucie Hoeflich in Berlin.

As Lilli wrote in her autobiography, by the time she received her first engagement at the theatre in Darmstadt, the Nazis had already risen to power, forcing her to leave her native country. Lilli first settled in Paris, but soon after went to London where she received her first big break in Alfred Hitchcock's Secret Agent (UK 1936), in which the leading role was played by another refugee from Nazi Germany, Peter Lorre. While in London, Lilli met fellow actor Rex Harrison, whom she later married.

Lilli Palmer and Rex Harrison in a photo by Tony Frissell from 1950

Surviving the German Blitz in their house outside London, in 1945 Lilli and Rex accepted an offer from Warner Bros. to go to Hollywood. Lilli's first two American films are among her best: Cloak and Dagger, from 1946, which was directed by fellow German Fritz Lang, and Body and Soul, by Abraham Polonsky, released in 1947, in which her co-star was John Garfield.

Lilli Palmer with co-star Gary Cooper in Fritz Lang's Cloak and Dagger (USA 1946)

Although Lilli made a number of films in the US and eventually even had her own TV show, in 1954 she accepted an offer from Erik Charell to return to her native Germany to star in his film Feuerwerk (Fireworks, W-Germany 1954). Like Lilli, Charell had fled the Nazis in 1933 but unlike Lilli, he returned to Germany after the war. The film became a major success and for the first time introduced Lilli to German audiences. Following the release of Feuerwerk, Lilli turned into one of Germany's biggest stars of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. One of her most memorable films from that period is the Arthur Brauner produced remake of Leontine Sagan's lesbian-themed drama, Maedchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform, W-Germany 1958), in which Lilli plays Miss von Bernburg, the object of Romy Schneider's Manuela von Meinhardis' attraction. German feminist Alice Schwartzer famously called the screen kiss of Palmer and Schneider the "sexiest in post-war German film".

Romy Schneider and Lilli Palmer in Girls in Geza von Radvanyi's Girls in Uniform (W-Germany 1958)

It is perhaps less of an irony than an atonement of sorts that the country she was forced to leave in 1933 now turned Lilli into one of its biggest stars. Over the years, she was the recipient of numerous awards and became a regular in German talk shows. And although Lilli continued to make films in the US as well as several other countries - she was, after all, fluent in English, French and Italian - at least to German audiences Lilli is best remembered today for her work in post-war Germany where her films are still frequently shown on television.

After Lilli's painful divorce from Rex Harrison, in 1957 Lilli married the Argentinian actor Carlos Thompson. Together, they settled in Switzerland, and besides her career as an actress, Lilli took increasingly to writing and painting. Her memoirs, Change Lobsters and Dance, became an international success, but particularly so in its German translation, Dicke Lilli, gutes Kind.

Lilli seen here in 1974 talking to Helmut Schmidt, the German chancellor between 1974 and 1982

Lilli died in 1986 in Los Angeles and is buried there in the Glendale branch of the Forest Lawn Cemetery (> for more on Forest Lawn Glendale, go to the blog archives in the sidebar and search for 'City of Angeles, Final Resting Places, Forest Lawn/ Glendale). Carlos Thompson, unable to cope with the loss of his wife, killed himself in 1990 by gunshot.

Memorial plaque for Lilli Palmer on the building of Hoelderlinstrasse 11 in the Westend District of Berlin, where Lilli lived with her parents between 1917 and 1932

Monday, 23 August 2010

A Private Function, Richard Mowbray, UK 1984

Calling A Private Function a romp would not do it justice for despite its fair share of bathroom humour, far too clever and subtle in its observations is the screenplay by Alan Bennett to be dismissed as being merely a romp. However, A Private Function is indeed hilarious, but it is also full of wicked little comments and allusions to post-war misery, the British class system and its upshot, snobbery.

A Private Function is set in 1947 in rural Yorkshire at the time of the royal wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth to Prince Phillip. Michael Palin plays Gilbert Chilvers, the town's chiropodist married to Joyce - portrayed by Maggie Smith - a piano teacher who also plays the Wurlitzer at the local cinema on the side. I admit being a huge - I mean HUGE! - fan of Maggie Smith's. She probably is the only actress with the ability to make me laugh uproariously even if she was just reading out the phone book. However, Maggie Smith really is hysterical in her role as Joyce since much of A Private Function's humour derives from Joyce's social ambitions. Joyce, unlike her husband, who passively gets on with his life, intends "to take this town". As we learn somewhere along the line, Joyce's father used to own a chain of dry-cleaners and so Joyce "wants a future that lives up to her past". Never mind that looking at Joyce's mother - whose dottiness and social ineptness can't just be a result of her age - it is hard to believe that Joyce's past is little more than a product of her fantasy. But this discrepancy between Joyce's social aspirations and the Chilvers' reality gives rise to A Private Function's funniest lines, and Maggie Smith the opportunity to be at her camp best! With post-war rationing still in full swing, Gilbert, egged on by Joyce, steals a pig. With a private function to commemorate the royal wedding coming up - to which, of course, neither Joyce nor Gilbert are invited - possessing said pig, which would provide plenty of meat to feed the dinner guests, Joyce senses her opportunity to schmooze their way into the town's upper crust from which they have thus far been so blatantly excluded. Once the pig is in the Chilvers' house, that's when A Private Function is at its riotous best, although what follows may not be for the faint-hearted. Unbeknownst to the unsuspecting Joyce, who hopes that "the pig will be a clean one", the poor animal suffers from a severe case of diarrhoea for having previously been fed a rat!

But the ensuing mess in the Chilvers' house notwithstanding, in the end Joyce emerges victorious. Finding out that the pig is unlicensed, she knows she has the upper hand and that there's little the pig's rightful owners can do. These are none other than the members of the town's upper crust, among them the town doctor who so staunchly tries to prevent the Chilvers' ascent into society. But having them by the tail, Joyce rolls in the cocktail trolley, herself dressed up to the nines, and nips on a glass of sherry while proposing a deal.

And so Joyce gets her invitation to the private function after all. Never mind that they are seated next to the toilets. Though when, in the very last scene, we see Joyce dancing with the doctor, whose hand wanders slowly from her back down to her bottom, we know that come the next such function Joyce will be seated at the very front - be that with Gilbert or someone else.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Christoph Schlingensief 1960 - 2010

It has just been reported that German film and theatre director Christoph Schlingensief has died. Schlingensief had been battling lung-cancer for some time.

Besides directing numerous - often controversial - films in Germany and Africa, Schlingensief also directed operas for the Bayreuth Wagner Festival as well as the Opera Festival in Manaus, Brazil. He was also involved in an opera project in Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, where he intended to build an opera house.

He was an uncompromising artist who didn't shrink from taboo violations and whose work usually contained strong political messages which, it must be said, weren't always understood, nor did they sit well with the establishment.

Schlingensief and Tilda Swinton, seen here at the Berlin Film Festival in 2009, where Schlingensief was a member of the jury while Swinton was the jury president

In the 1980s Schlingensief dated actress Tilda Swinton. In recent years, he collaborated with countless national and international artists, Udo Kier, Margit Carstensen, and Patti Smith among them. Not that long ago Schlingensief married his long-time collaborator, costume designer Aino Laberenz, in a private ceremony in Hoppenrade Castle in Brandenburg.

Schlingensief at work in Burkina Faso

Portrait: Marisa Berenson

Marisa Berenson in 2008 at the National Board of Review Awards

Marisa Berenson starred in three iconic films from the 1970s, Death in Venice (Lucchino Visconti, 1971), Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972), and Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975). Although originally a model rather than a trained actress by profession, in all three roles Berenson more than lives up to the part. However, particularly her part in Barry Lyndon Lyndon has often been underrated by critics - as has the entire film - and her passive melancholy mistaken for a lack of acting skills, though this passive melancholy is precisely what her character, Lady Lyndon, is all about. It didn't help, that Barry Lyndon was beautifully photographed - the images by John Alcott are now legend - and that Marisa got to wear the most sumptuous 18th century costumes, as both were immediately linked to her other career as a fashion model and as a result, her acting was overlooked - unjustly so. However, it can't be denied that the ethereal aspect of her beauty was an added quality to Lady Lyndon's character, and with a face like Marisa's, it is difficult to imagine another actress playing that part.

Marisa Berenson in Barry Lyndon

On the other hand, her performance in Cabaret, in which she plays the Jewish department store heiress, Natalia Landauer, won critical acclaim and she was nominated as Best Supporting Actress at both the Golden Globes and The Baftas. In Death in Venice, based on Thomas Mann's novel, Marisa's part was relatively small. Playing the wife to Dirk Bogarde's Gustav von Aschenbach, she is only seen in a flashback that is not in Mann's book. But similarly to Barry Lyndon, Marisa's melancholy beauty - which makes her the perfect tragedienne - was an added characteristic to both parts.

Marisa Berenson as Natalia Landauer in Cabaret

Marisa Berenson was born in New York City in 1947 to Robert L. Berenson, an American diplomat, and Countess Maria Luisa Yvonne Radha de Wendt de Kerlor, the daughter of fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Marisa grew up in the US and France, was sent to boarding school in England and is fluent in several languages. She started her modelling career in 1964 with an introduction from her maternal grandmother, Elsa Schiaparelli. Marisa's sister was the photographer Berinthia, called Berry Berenson-Perkins - the widow of actor Anthony Perkins - and was one of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Berry was in flight 11 on her way from Boston to Los Angeles to see her son when her plane got hi-jacked and subsequently smashed into the World Trade Center.

Marisa Berenson divides her time between New York City and Paris.

Marisa Berenson, seen here with Betty Catroux - the muse of the late Yves Saint Laurent - and fashion designer Diane von Fuerstenberg

Marisa on the cover of the September issue of British Vogue, 1968

Marisa Berenson in the 1970s

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Antichrist, Lars von Trier, Denmark/ Germany/ France/ Italy/ Sweden/ Poland, 2009

Apparently, director Lars von Trier cooked up this cryptic, abstruse mess of a film while conquering depression.

And it shows.

Antichrist does come across as highly personal and esoteric if incomprehensible, and I can only marvel at the European film funding bodies, willing to shell out millions to pay for what amounts to a cure for a director to combat his depression.

Really, only in Europe!

But don't get me wrong. That is not meant to be a criticism. Not at all. After all, some of the greatest works of art - be that literature, painting, or film - originated as a result of their creator's depression or emotional breakdown. Just think of the poems of Sylvia Plath, the paintings by van Gogh or the sculptures of Camille Claudel. And, who knows, a hundred years from now, there might actually be someone able to decipher and make sense of von Trier's bizarre, yet admittedly visually stunning, concoction. Though the least he should have done - or his distributor - is providing spectators with a sort of manual, elucidating on the significance behind the film's numerous inscrutable details such as The Three Beggars, which defy explanation to the casual viewer by inviting a profusion of possible interpretations. While that can be interesting in some films - leaving things open and not spelling out every single detail - it requires the viewer to be inspired to do that. It requires the viewer to care for the film's characters. And Antichrist never quite achieves that. Not with me, anyway.

What Antichrist did do, though, is calling to mind another film with a similar topic: Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now. And without intending to elaborate on the brilliance, not to mention superiority of that film, it must be said that Roeg succeeds precisely where von Trier fails. Don't Look Now is a master-class in enigmatic story-telling for Roeg, too, refrains from giving too much away. His is a film with a story that has as many interpretations as there are viewers. However, in his case it works because we care for the characters and Don't Look Now has a story to hold it together - for without it, every film falls apart. It doesn't matter how you tell the story - backwards, forward, linear or non-linear - but a story has to be there somewhere. Antichrist, on the other hand, with all its arcane suggestions and hidden meanings, which seem merely self-serving and too esoteric to be understood by anyone than von Trier himself, is a film in search of a story.

Much has been made of Antichrist's explicitness, notably the sex scenes and scenes of genital mutilation which caused quite a stir at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Again, it brings to mind Don't Look Now, which also has a sex scene which, apart from being beautifully filmed and edited, was very daring for its time. Somehow, the scene of Donald Sutherland making love with Julie Christie seems much less gratuitous than similar scenes in von Trier's film. Similarly, the scene of genital mutilation. I don't think there was a single critic accusing Ingmar Bergman of misogyny and using explicitness for explicitness' sake when Cries and Whispers came out in 1972, interestingly the same year Don't Look Now was being produced and filmed. Von Trier didn't do or show anything in Antichrist that Roeg and Bergman hadn't already done almost thirty years before.

However, they did what von Trier in his - egomania? - failed to do: They actually told a story.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Klaus Lemke

Klaus Lemke today

German film-maker Klaus Lemke is turning 70 in October, although you'd never know it, looking at his whitened teeth, his well trained body (according to his own admission he goes to the gym every day) and dressed as he is in trendy jeans and beret.

Little known abroad, his upcoming 70th birthday heralds what amounts to a rediscovery of him and his films, notably those of the late 1960s and 1970s, which was his heyday and his most active period as a film maker. That said, nowadays Lemke is still actively making films, though the intervals are getting bigger and rather than for cinematic release, his recent films are primarily made for television. But then, from the start Lemke has often worked for German television, though there would still be the occasional cinematic release. These, however, have now become increasingly rare.

Lemke (with beret) being awarded a prize by Munich's mayor Christian Uhde

More than just a rediscovery of his earlier films such as 48 Hours to Acapulco (1967) and Arabian Nights (1979), they are now accorded cult status, and for his birthday, major German TV channels are planning re-runs of his films. Moreover, a slew of German newspapers and magazines have recently run features on Lemke, including an interview he gave for the Munich-based Sueddeutsche Zeitung, arguably the most important German daily. Suddenly, the fact that he discovered German actresses like Cleo Kretschmer and Iris Berben is being widely discussed, and yes, even international socialite Ira von Fuerstenberg starred in one of Lemke's films: She played the lead in the suggestively titled My Bed is not for Sleeping (1968), and I personally can't think of any other film whose title so evokes the zeitgeist of that period. Berben got her first break in Lemke's 1968 made-for-television film Brandstifter (Arsonists), and who would have thought that in time, Berben would mutate from the sex-kitten she was then into the serious actress she is today, a major force in German film and television, not to mention an admirable as well as ardent fighter against racism and a staunch human rights activist.

Cleo Kretschmer

Iris Berben

Ira von Fuerstenberg

Why, I wonder, is it, that Lemke's films never travelled beyond the German borders? Why, at a time like the 1970s, when German films had a considerably higher presence at film festivals around the world - especially in Cannes - than they have today, was Lemke's work overlooked abroad and, it must be added, looked down on at home? My answer to that one is that even though his films certainly were in line with the contemporary zeitgeist inasmuch as they had a certain anarchic quality, they lacked the intellectual and political edge of a Fassbinder, Schloendorff or Wenders to be taken seriously abroad. Never mind that Schloendorff's then-partner, Margarethe von Trotta, also starred in Arsonists, the film that put Berben on the map. On the other hand, their often slightly soft-porn slant and their fly-by-night look equally prevented Lemke's films to be taken seriously at home. (Let's not forget that Lemke had no qualms hiring busty adult actress Dolly Dollar to star in some of his films, such as the above mentioned Arabian Nights and Honeymoon (1980). And that surely did not sit well with any aficionado of New German Cinema - be that at home or abroad). That is not to say that some of Lemke's films weren't box-office hits, because they were. And often more so than Wenders' or Fassbinder's which, while being feted at film festivals, made little or no money on their home turf.

However, with the zeitgeist having since shifted away from the prevailing serious/intellectual/political, not to say humourless, attitude of 1970s Germany to a more insouciant, post-modern view of the world, it is great to see that Lemke's work is currently being rediscovered and re-assessed. And it can only be a matter of time until some film festivals will hold retrospectives of Lemke's work and the first dissertations on him will appear in film schools around the country, although I have feeling that Lemke couldn't possibly care less. Lemke's films, which contrary to those of many other German film makers of the time, have a lah-di-da feel to them which - surprisingly, perhaps - stood the test of time. Often set in exotic locations such as Ibiza, Acapulco and similar such places that were in the process of being explored by the German Wirtschaftswunder-traveller, they are a time capsule much like, for instance, Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party is a similar time capsule in British cinema and society for the same period. Be it as it may, it is great to see that finally Lemke's work may get its due place in the history of German cinema at long last.

Select filmography of Klaus Lemke (Note: Some titles are in English in the original):

- Schmutziger Sueden (Filthy South), 2010 (TV)

- Undercover Ibiza, 2007 (TV)

- Honeymoon, 1980

- Arabian Nights, 1979

- Ein komischer Heiliger (Some Kind of Saint), 1979

- Amore, 1978

- Liebe, so schoen wie Liebe (Love, as Beautiful as Love), 1972

- Brandstifter (Arsonists), 1969 (TV)

- My Bed is not for Sleeping, 1968

- 48 Stunden bis Acapulco (48 Hours to Acapulco), 1967

Klaus Lemke with a member of the cast of his latest film, Schmutziger Sueden (Filthy South)

Monday, 16 August 2010

Locarno Film Festival, 04 - 14 August, 2010 - Winners

On Saturday night the Locarno Film Festival came to a close. Here is a brief list of this year's winners:

International Competition

Pardo d’oro (Golden Leopard)
HAN JIA (Winter Vacation) by LI Hongqi, China

Premio speciale della giuria (Special Jury Prize)
MORGEN by Marian Crisan, France/Romania/Hungary

Pardo per la migliore regia (Best Director)
Denis Côté
for CURLING , Canada

Pardo per la miglior interpretazione femminile (Leopard for Best Actress)
Jasna Duricic
in BELI BELI SVET (White White World) by Oleg Novkovic, Serbia/Germany/Sweden

Pardo per la miglior interpretazione maschile (Leopard for Best Actor)
Emmanuel Bilodeau
in CURLING by Denis Côté, Canada

Film makers of the Present

Pardo d’oro Cineasti del presente – Premio George Foundation (Golden Leopard - Filmmakers of the Present Competition)
PARABOLES by Emmanuelle Demoris, France

Premio speciale della giuria CINÉ CINÉMA Cineasti del presente (Special CINÉ CINÉMA Jury Prize)
FOREIGN PARTS by Verena Paravel and JP Sniadecki, USA/France

Special Mention:
IVORY TOWER by Adam Traynor, Canada/France

For more information, please click on this link: Locarno-Film-Festival.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

The Last Seduction, John Dahl, USA 1994

The Last Seduction.

A landmark in neo-noir film-making; A milestone in both director John Dahl's career as well as that of the film's leading lady, Linda Fiorentino; To say nothing of the fact that it is virtually impossible to think of an on-screen villain - male or female - to match Fiorentino's character's, Bridget Gregory, diabolism and depravity, notwithstanding earlier film-noir femme fatales.

Linda Fiorentino as Bridget Gregory in The Last Seduction (John Dahl, USA 1994)

Although it would be unfair to director John Dahl and his screenwriter, Steve Brancik, to reduce the film to its heroine alone, there can be no denying that in Bridget Gregory they, along with Fiorentino's talent, brought a character to live that is essentially without equal in film history for Bridget is as evil as she is fascinating, as intelligent as she is sexy, and whose glamour and allure are less a result of her beauty as of her intellect, her sex-appeal and her sheer sagacity. In fact, Bridget can be called many things, but surely not that she is beautiful. At least not in the conventional sense of the word. But then again, sex-appeal - in a woman or a man - does not necessarily have anything to do with beauty but instead has a lot do with with confidence and wit, both of which Bridget has in abundance.

Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson (Billy Wilder, USA 1944)

Bridget has a lot in common with similar, earlier, film noir femme fatales, notably Bodyheat's Matty Walker and Double Indemnity's Phyllis Dietrichson. And in spite of The Last Seduction's lack of baroque references to - other - films noirs, a direct reference to Wilder's 1944 masterpiece appears at the very end when Bridget, with the intention to trick Peter Berg's Mike Swale into killing Calhill, mentions a "double indemnity clause", paid out by the insurance company in the event that Calhill - who, unbeknownst to Mike, is her husband - gets killed. But of course, it wouldn't have required that reference to bring to mind Double Indemnity! The narrative, too - a femme fatale talking a sucker into killing her husband - owes plenty to Wilder's film. As do the dialogues. Bridget's wit is an updated, version of Phyllis Dietrichson's. To highlight my assertion, click here for a clip from The Last Seduction, and here for a clip from Double Indemnity. But then, one could argue that Bridget is a result of both Phyllis and Matty, as in 1981, when Bodyheat came out, Matty may have been regarded as a latter-day Phyllis Dietrichson. For an example of Kathleen's Turner's Matty working her magic on William Hurt, click here.

Kathleen Turner as Matty Walker in Bodyheat (Lawrence Kasdan, USA 1981)

Certainly, all three characters - Phyllis, Matty, Bridget - are related and they are without a doubt among the most intriguing roles ever written for a woman, not to mention the most violent ones, a domain habitually reserved to the male protagonist. While in 1944, the Production Code required Phyllis Dietrichson to die at the end ("crime doesn't pay"), several decades later Matty and Bridget not only were allowed to live, they even got away with the crimes they committed and emerged victorious over the men they tricked into killing their husbands. Interestingly, in all three cases it wasn't solely through their beauty that they achieved their aim. Or rather, Phyllis, Matty and Bridget had the intelligence to know how exactly to use their beauty wisely, well aware of which buttons to push with men, most of whom are so easily blinded by physical attraction alone.

In all three cases - Phyllis, Matty, Bridget - their actresses fully live up to their part; parts, it is worth adding, that were difficult to cast as each one of them was considered daring at the time because of their sheer depravity. However, as society became more permissive and our tolerance level of on-screen violence increased, so did the depravity of the character: Matty is more immoral than Phyllis and Bridget, in turn, is more evil than Matty. But looking at Bridget and her degree of cold-bloodedness, there's not a lot left in her that could still be regarded as human, hence, I dread to think what the next version - should there be one - of the Phyllis-Matty-Bridget character will be like.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Chiko, Özgür Yildirim, Germany 2008

One could easily dismiss Yildrim's film as yet another German Mean Streets set in Germany's immigrant community, if it wouldn't make for such compelling viewing. Like a string of similarly themed films, Chiko, too, takes place in Hamburg. This may be explained by the fact that it was produced by Fatih Akin's Corazon Films, and with Hamburg being Akin's home town it is also the base of his production company.

An edge-of-your-seat thriller, Chiko has doom written all over it and with its fratricide at the end, it actually has all the makings of a Greek tragedy. Volkan Oezcan and Denis Moschitto play two friends - Tibet and Chiko - who are so close that they consider themselves brothers. Driven by dreams of easy cash for fast cars and trashy women they get involved with big-time drug-dealer Brownie, played by Moritz Bleibtreu, only that Tibet decides to skim some of Brownie's money to buy a kidney for his mother, who depends on weekly visits to the hospital for dialysis. Once Brownie gets wise to Tibet, he gets on Brownie's bad side, and it's a really bad one. While at first Chiko still stands by his brother manqué, his yearning for the lush life eventually make him turn against Tibet. Chiko goes on to garner brownie point after brownie point with Brownie, especially after a drug deal gone awry in which Chiko narrowly avoids getting killed.

The tides turn towards the end when two of Brownie's cronies are on the hunt for Tibet for having tried to finish off Brownie. Although Tibet's attempt at shooting down his former boss was unsuccessful, Brownie demands his head, and while turning the flat Tibet inhabits with his mother upside down, Brownie's cronies accidentally kill his mother. Earlier on in the film Chiko mentions how he regards "Tibet's mother as also being his own". No surprise then, that her killing puts him in a fury that results in him shooting down Brownie. Tibet, however, is absolutely inconsolable over the loss of his mother, and blaming Chiko for her demise, he stabs him to death before, it is suggested, turning the knife on himself.

Yes, there sure is a lot going on in a mere 90 minutes and there certainly is enough violence to put Tarantino and Scorsese (in his heydey) to shame as virtually every protagonist in the film gets killed. But as I said above, although Chiko could be dismissed as little more than a German version of Mean Streets while the genre it helped create is akin to a German-Turkish version of the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, Yildrim's film no doubt is very absorbing and well crafted. Fast paced, well acted, and peppered with snappy dialogues which, sadly, don't always translate well into English, Chiko offers a different, fascinating, side to German cinema, though one which, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, is still largely ignored.

Watch the trailer to Chiko here!

Chiko is out on DVD.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Laurel Canyon, Lisa Cholodenko, USA 2002

Similarly to one of Cholodenko's previous films, High Art, Laurel Canyon also revolves around a couple, Sam and Alex, confronted by a small group of people, in this case musicians, collaborators of Sam's mother, Jane, who is a producer in LA's music industry.

Sam and Alex are academics whose lives take them from their Ivy League universities on the east coast to Los Angeles, Sam's hometown, where they stay with Jane. Jane's life is as unconventional and unrepressed as Sam's and Alex's is controlled, restrained and dominated by the mind rather than indulgence. The first five minutes of Cholodenko's film set the tone for the remaining 90 minutes, as from the campus of an Ivy League university, where during a formal occasion we see Sam talking to Alex's parents, the film cuts to the free-spirited, bohemian Laurel Canyon neighbourhood of Los Angeles, where Sam and Alex are on their way to his mother's new house.

It goes without saying that with these polar opposites confrontations are bound to happen. Sam's relationship with his mother is complicated, to say the least, although he clearly doesn't hate her. He is far too rational a person to be able to feel anything as intense as hatred. There is only one single scene in Laurel Canyon in which Sam loses control of his emotions - when he discovers Alex in bed with his mother's lover and his mother. Sam is, however, ashamed of Jane, as he admits to Alex early on in the film. It is up to the viewer to imagine what Sam's childhood must have been like, growing up in Los Angeles in the free-wheeling 1970s with a mother working in the music industry. Moreover, Jane's new boyfriend, Ian, is sixteen years her junior, which puts him in Sam's own age range.

Although at the beginning Laurel Canyon seems to focus on Sam And Alex, it is Jane who gradually emerges as being at the centre of the film and undoubtedly, she is Laurel Canyon's most fascinating character. What Jane lacks in motherly instincts she more than makes up for by her integrity, honesty, and level-headedness. Never mind that she smokes dope and can't hold down any serious relationship. But make no mistake, although it may be her son who's the family's intellectual, Jane's not born yesterday, either. Quite the opposite. However, unlike her son, whose emotional life is held in check, Jane is free of all inhibitions and takes life as it comes. At first I thought - feared - Jane would be a reprise of the Norma Desmond character, replete with being obsessively jealous of her younger lover and afraid of losing her looks. But nothing could be further from the truth. Played by the brilliant Frances McDormand, giving one of her best, most nuanced, performances of her career, Jane became a complex, dexterous, charismatic, character, who for all her shortcomings, does have her scruples and principles.

I'm always amazed, yet relieved, that films like Laurel Canyon are still getting made, even though their commercial prospects are no doubt limited as they are about little more than the complexity and frailty of human relationships. But to see disaster and destruction in the cinema there is no need for a bonanza of special effects.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Abigail's Party, Mike Leigh 1977

Having watched Career Girls again a few days ago, prompted me to revisit some other, earlier, Mike Leigh gems, among them Abigail's Party, Leigh's made-for-television movie from 1977.

What really struck me about Abigail's Party this time is how Leigh was quite obviously inspired by Nichols'/ Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Although Woolf is less a statement about class than an observation of marriage - although one could argue that the two are related - the parallels between the two films struck me as quite interesting. For starters, there is the obvious parallel of two couples being at the centre of the narrative. Never mind that Abigail's Party has one additional character, Sue, one whose functions it is to provide the narrative with its elephant in the room - the party of her daughter Abigail. Both Abigail and her party are frequently referred to by Sue and the other characters, however, we neither actually get to see Abigail nor the party. This has its parallel in Woolf in the non-existing son, invented by George and Martha to fill the void between them and to make up for the son they never had. In fact, all couples in Woolf and Abigail are childless.

Another fascinating parallel between the two films concerns some of the characters. While Beverly, who is at the centre of Abigail's Party has her equivalent in Martha, Angela, the simpleton, is akin to Honey in Woolf. On the same token, the shift in the dynamics between the two couples in Abigail's Party is also not dissimilar to Woolf as both Albee/ Nichols and Leigh allow their characters to develop and reveal unexpected strengths and weaknesses. In other words, both films avoid easy categorisation of their protagonists, and as their attitudes shift, so do our sympathies towards them. For instance when Beverly, who, through most of the film comes across as obnoxious and pretentious, reveals an unexpected sympathy and vulnerability at the end when faced with the sudden death of her husband whom only minutes ago she had nothing but contempt for.

However, although Leigh may have used Woolf as a blueprint and inspiration for his own film, there is no denying that at their heart, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Abigail's Party have been made for different reasons with both films having a rather different premise. That said, Leigh's mockery of the middle-class and those who aspire to be part of it may be at the core of his own film, Nichols', too, also is not entirely without its own statement on class as Martha's contempt for George is based on his lack of ambition which prevents him of becoming head of the faculty which would have resulted in a step up the social ladder, not to mention in a rise in salary.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Bound, Andy & Lana Wachowski, USA 1996

I don't think I can be accused of hyperbole calling Bound a classic. After all, it put the Wachowski siblings on the map, resuscitated Gina Gershon's career after the Showgirls disaster the year before (which, as some may recall, caused some critics to proclaim the end of Gershon's career as well as that of her co-star Elizabeth Perkins), not to mention that Bound remains the only film that I know of which has two lesbian lovers as the protagonists. What's more, two lesbian protagonists who take on the mob and beat it at their game. Oh, and there is the small matter of Bound keeping the viewer at the edge of their seat literally from the beginning through to the end. No mean feat for a film that clearly is not a popcorn movie, although, come to think of it, that most probably is part of the reason why.

Having watched Bound twice in a row when it first came out I saw it again last night and I wasn't surprised to notice that it has stood the test of time. Bound is an exercise in slick, taut, story-telling matched by an equally slick cinematography. Considering that a few scenes aside, almost the entire film takes place in two adjacent apartments, never losing the attention of the spectator is a rare achievement in film-making. On the same token, although the storyline is not always easy to follow, it is not confusing, either, and it is apt to - almost - satisfy even the most discerning viewer out to spot holes in the plot. But if after the third viewing I picked up on - notably one - weak point in the narrative doesn't mean a first-time viewer will, too. Nor is that in any way compromising the credibility and the probability of the narrative, much less ruin the excitement. That precisely is the artistry of Bound, or rather its script, that the way the story is told - and acted! - makes you overlook these tiny flaws, and I think the last time that happened in a film Mr. Alfred Hitchcock was still alive.

But some of the credit must also go to Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon, who play the lesbian couple, Violet and Corky. They are not only convincing, not to mention sexy, their chemistry also is so real, so intense, that again, it made me think of Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in, say, Hitchcock's Notorius. Actually, Bound is one of those way-too-rare examples of an outstanding synergy between scriptwriter, director, cinematographer and the actors, all of whom are at the top of their game.

Although I doubt that there is any self-respecting movie-lover out there who hasn't seen this early Wachowski-gem, there's little point in delving into the detail of Bound's narrative as it'll bore those who have seen it while it'll spoil the fun for those that haven't.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Hans Fallada (Rudolf Wilhelm Ditzen)

Hans Fallada (1893 - 1947)

A few years ago, the US-based Melville Publishing House had a small number of novels by German writer Hans Fallada - among them Every man Dies Alone - re-translated into English which heralded the rediscovery of Fallada by the Anglo-Saxon world.

Looking at the decades between Fallada's death in 1947 and today, it is easy to forget that Fallada's books once were as popular abroad as they were in Germany. One of his best known novels, Little Man What Now?, was an immediate success in both the UK and the US when it was first published there in 1932, and already two years after its publication Universal acquired the rights and turned it into a film starring Margaret Sullavan with Frank Borzage directing.

Margaret Sullavan and Douglass Montgomery in Universal's Little Man, What Now?

Sadly, after his death, in the UK and the US Fallada disappeared almost completely into oblivion while in his home country, Fallada remained a well known writer though no longer a widely read one. A lot of his decline in popularity has, particularly as far as the US and the UK are concerned, I believe, to do with the fact that he was one of those writers who did not emigrate during the Nazi reign. Other, so called 'inner emigres', included Erich Kaestner, Ricarda Huch and Nobel prize laureate Gerhart Hauptmann. However, although Fallada's position towards Nazism and its leaders may at times have been ambiguous, as the war wore on Fallada's stance towards the Nazis did shift to almost open opposition as evident in some of the works he wrote while being in incarceration in 1944, making no bones about his opinion of Hitler's regime, much to his own detriment.

It may well be the fact that the black-and-white picture, dividing Germans into either Nazis or opponents, read: emigrants, which prevailed over the past 65 years or so, has begun to shift, resulting in a new evaluation of those Germans who sat out the Nazi years at home rather than emigrating. This, in turn, may have prompted the rediscovery of writers such as Hans Fallada.

And what does all this have to do with film?

It appears that Stefan Arndt of X-Filme (Goodbye Lenin; The White Ribbon) in conjunction with Vincent Perez - who is of German descent - have just acquired the rights to what arguably is Fallada's best and most significant book, Jeder stirbt fuer sich allein (English title: Alone in Berlin; American title: Every man Dies Alone).

American edition of Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone/Alone in Berlin

Alone in Berlin/ Every Man Dies Alone is based on the real-life story of Otto and Elise Hampel, a married, Berlin-based, couple, who were executed in 1943 for resisting the Nazis. Archival documents about the Hampels were passed on to Fallada by a returning emigre, Johannes Becher, who rightly deemed it important to make the fate of the Hampels accessible to a wider audience. Indeed! None other than concentration camp survivor Primo Levi considered Alone in Berlin to be the best existing book about the German Resistance.

A previous film version of that book exists in the form of a German made-for-television movie dating from 1975 and starring Hildegard Knef, no less. I have long been thinking that more than any other of Fallada's novels Alone in Berlin does indeed merit rediscovery, not to mention a remake for cinematic release. It'll be interesting to see what Arndt's X-Filme and Perez will make of it.