Thursday, 14 January 2010

Cambridge Film Festival 2003 reviews (2)

Non-Dovzhenko films:

Blind Spot

This is the story of how a young Bavarian girl, wanting to get away from an overbearing father who refused to allow her to become a dancer, instead became one of Hitler’s secretaries at the age of 22. She remained with him, at both Berchtesgarten and in Berlin, right up until the end, taking down his last political and personal testaments as Soviet shells rained down on the bunker complex. She had not spoken much of her time with Hitler until recent years, partly because, as she says, there was little interest in Germany in examining such a painful period. But she has popped up occasionally in documentaries covering much the same ground, and of course there were other witnesses to these events, not least Hitler’s personal valet.

So not much of what Traudl Junge has to say in this documentary provides new insights into the pathological boilerhouse that was the end of the Third Reich. What is fascinating about this film is her personal story, how she got the job – personal connections were extremely important to advancement – and how she came to realise, rather late in the day, that Hitler was a criminal. It is the small details that fascinate, such as Hitler himself giving her a dictation test (and taking a ‘phone call from Ribbentrop allowing her time to control her nerves), his dislike of warm rooms and cut flowers, his stomach wind, Junge making the six doomed Goebbels children marmalade sandwiches because nobody had fed them.

These counterpoint the larger-scale events that provided the context, and finally overwhelmed the thousand-year Reich. Junge considers whether her youth absolved her from complicity, and decides it did not, given that others her age resisted, and paid the price. Well over half a century later one can see that she is still haunted by what she did, and did not do. Ultimately, whether others forgave her was less important than whether she could forgive herself.

Bufallo Soldiers

Buffalo Soldiers was shelved after 11 September 2001, and although set in Germany in 1989, it has resonances today, not least as a possible explanation of why the US military gets involved in so many friendly fire incidents. It is an exploration of the maxim “The Devil makes work for idle hands”, and there is a lot of idleness on show here. The main protagonist, superbly played by Joaquin phoenix, fills the vacuum, abetted by a bunch of chancers, and unwittingly by his weak-willed base commander, a sad-eyed Ed Harris. Phoenix is Sgt Bilko thirty years on in a tougher age.

Yet despite his nefarious activities, cooking up heroin and selling army property, from cleaning fluid to automatic weapons, once his nemesis, a sinister Scott Glenn, appears, and his world begins to unravel, we feel sorry for him, so fully has Phoenix engaged our sympathies. There is a climax worthy of Tom Sharpe, with desserts not necessarily dealt out according to merit, and with the commander at Phoenix’s new post (Hawaii!) clearly from the same mould as Harris, the implication is that if top management cannot keep a grip, wide boys are bound to flourish. A telling moment is when a bunch of the guys are watching the Berlin wall come down on TV, and they don’t even know whether they are in East or West Germany. The lesson is that if you can no longer understand why you are in a country, your time there is past. [yes, this was written in 2003]

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Usually martial arts films are about fighting and not much else. In that sense Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon isn’t really a martial arts film, even though it contains the cliché of a warrior (the superb Chow Yun Fat – obviously a less talented clone bagged the part of Bullet Proof Monk) out to revenge his dead master, plus a great deal of acrobatic combat. Rather it is a character study of loyalty, thwarted love (with the divine Michellle Yeoh) and destiny that transcends the pulp confines of the story. So we get emotional depth, but we get much more. The plot involves attempts to recapture the Green Destiny sword, but who cares when you have wirework of this calibre. These warriors race up walls and across roofs, and pirouette delicately among the treetops. Women are no less able in this world than the menfolk, being equal opportunities warriors. The protagonists seem to have found a kung fu style that allows them to overcome the law of gravity, and they use it to its full potential. But just when you think that things will turn out well, the ending brings you up short, and leaves even the most hardened action aficionado with a lump in the throat. This is a China that never was but should have been.

Dennis Hopper: Create or Die

Dennis Hopper (Create or Die) is an amiable look at a one-time Hollywood rebel, examining various facets of this interesting and intelligent character. He gives an abbreviated version of his childhood and his acting and directorial careers, but seems more interested in his painting and photography; the latter in particular is tremendously accomplished. Various mates, notably Sean Penn, David Lynch, Wim Wenders, Bryan Adams and David Hockney, appear in order to provide their take on him. Wenders is spot on when he says that at the time of The American Friend he did not expect Hopper to be alive in 2000, but now he will probably outlive them all.

Hopper has certainly cleaned up his act, and surviving the vicissitudes he has experienced results in a lack the egomania typical of many stars, though he can still be acerbic, as his dressing down of a German museum curator during the hanging of a retrospective exhibition indicates. He is filmed, also in Germany, conducting an acting masterclass in The Method, showing a willingness to help students, even if the process looks stressful for them. It is a bit odd to see this ex-hellraiser play golf, and a surprise to see the excellent shape he is in compared to Jack Nicholson, who looks awful (and who is not interviewed).

This is a portrait that is probably not as revealing as it would like to suggest, the anecdotes for the most part well-worn, but you come away with respect for a great talent, though one that might have accomplished even more if he had spent more time sober. The title is misleading: Hopper never said “Create or die”. He said that if you don’t have the feeling that if you do not create you will die, you should stop creating, lead a useful life, and let those who do feel that if they don’t create they will die get on with it. That seems a useful philosophy to have, and one that has served Hopper well, even if the results have been variable.


Axel is a surgeon but he doesn't practise any more. Instead he lives with his sister and spends his days in cafes. One day he meets a pregnant woman and eventually moves in with her. Time passes. She has her baby. Axel leaves the hospital during the birth and is last seen on a train, heading who knows where.

The problem with film is that unless there is a voice-over (and often even then) it is difficult trying to work out what is going on in somebody's head. If a person is quiet, it is easy to assume that they are somehow profound. A less charitable explanation is that there is nothing underneath. What you see is what you're stuck with. A silence can be shallow as easily as profound.

Axel doesn't talk much, and it is difficult to fathom what the various women in his life - a clearly devoted older sister, his girlfriend, an old flame he visits and with whom he is more animated than at any other time in the film - see in him. Normally he is a lousy conversationalist, with a marked lack of curiosity about those with whom he interacts.

The director, Santiago Loza, seems to sense this emptiness. All too often time passes with static shots of the environment, often trees struggling to survive in a desert of concrete. The camera lingers on small details, such as a coffee cup, a small wine stain on a white tablecloth, eyes, a back. Look, we are being urged, these are the details we never notice, you can see the stale world afresh through this film.

But it is a sleight of hand, covering up the lack of a centre of gravity. Axel is too passive a character to elicit interest. Only rarely does he make genuine contact with others, as opposed to passing the time with them: sharing a cigarette with his nephew, lying in bed with his girlfriend, telling his sister that she is the most important woman in his life, but not the only one.

At the end of the film, during the interminable shot of him sitting by a window, the eye is drawn more to the scenery passing outside than it is to him in the foreground. A low-budget film that concentrates on character is fine, but it needs to be one that the audience cares about.

Goodbye, Lenin

The fall of the Berlin Wall may have brought freedoms to the residents of the former East Germany: freedom from interrogation by sinister plain-clothed policemen and from being beaten in the street by uniformed ones; the ability to buy fast food, a wider range of, and better fitting, clothing; and not least gherkins from Holland and ready access to pornography. But there was clearly a downside, from the humiliation of seeing the currency superseded, through mass unemployment, to the supercilious attitude of West Germans. Worst of all was the loss of the certainties that provided identity and purpose.

Against this background, Alex has to protect his fiercely socialist mother, who fell into a coma before the wall fell, and has woken up in a vastly changed world. He tries to keep her from further shocks by weaving an ever-more elaborate fantasy, the steps of which follow logically, for example explaining why Coca Cola should be freely available all of a sudden (invented by Communists), culminating in the preposterous notion that desperate West Germans are clamouring for sanctuary in the Workers' Paradise, in order to explain to her the influx of what were hitherto class enemies. In doing so he continues the toppled apparatus's public relations machine, painting a false picture of reality which those in the scheme with him find increasingly distasteful

The irony is that towards the end his mother is told the truth by Alex's girlfriend, and is able to cope with the news, so that the only person who is deceived is Alex himself. The clear implication is that East Germans can bear reality. Yet the feeling left by the film is one of nostalgia, despite the harshness and shoddiness of the discredited regime. As Alex says, what he was doing was to bring East Germany to the conclusion it should have had, one with dignity and on equal terms with its richer neighbour.

The sense of loss is best summed up by the walk that Alex's mother takes on her first venture into the brave new world. She is confronted by the torso of a giant statue of Lenin being borne past by helicopter. As she stands, stunned, the two seem to make eye contact, and Lenin holds out a hand, a beseeching look on his face, as he is carried off into history.

Ma Vie

Etienne is a solitary lad living in Rouen whose mother wishes he would become more sociable. He has one good friend, Ludo, but his interests revolve around figure skating, and latterly the video camera he has been given. With this he starts to record the minutiae of his everyday life, and especially his mother, to the extent that she eventually becomes uncomfortable with the intrusiveness. He does record other things, though, especially his geography teacher, whom he stalks. Eventually mother and teacher become a couple and Etienne carries on recording as part of the new family unit. He also likes to video good-looking (but as it turns out rather dense) Ludo, both on his own, using Ludo’s dramatic pretensions as a pretext, and with his girlfriends, which not unreasonably they find creepy.

When chided by Ludo about being on his own, Etienne declares that this will be the year of love, and the story comes to a head on holiday, where romance traditionally blossoms. Etienne’s is a typical story of a teenager finding himself, and being a pain to the others around him as a result (in the teacher’s case – after he has twigged what is going on - literally). Jimmy Taveres, who plays Etienne, is amazingly assured and convincing, and is also a damn fine figure skater. The conceit of the viewer only seeing the supposed video footage never grows stale, though one wonders why Etiennne’s mother never becomes concerned at his obsessive use of the camera and has a look at his footage. This is the sort of low-key character study that the French do so well, even though in this case the whole does not seem to be quite the sum of its parts.

Petites Coupures

Bruno, a convincingly haggard Daniel Auteuil, is a communist journalist who doesn’t seem to write much. He is an amiable enough chap but seems to have lost his sense of direction. He is also a philanderer in trouble with his wife, who leaves at the beginning of the film. Bruno is summoned to the court of his uncle, the local mayor, for whom Bruno writes speeches and whose reelection bid is in trouble (no wonder, because he’s barmy) and given a letter to deliver to an enemy. Thus begins a picaresque journey through the French winter landscape, where on the way he meets a variety of women, from mad to sad, and gets himself deeper in trouble until a deceived husband exacts his revenge.

The small cuts of the title refer to gashes Bruno makes on his fingers with a craft knife in a travel agent where his wife is buying her ticket, that is, they are self-inflicted wounds. His character is shallow, with a line in platitudes, a fear of engaging deeper in life, and capable of cruelty, as when he speaks harshly about his young (how French!) mistress. The Danteesque nature of his journey is emphasised unsubtly by the name of Beatrice, a neurotic turn from Kristin Scott Thomas, with whom he falls in love. At the end, bearing a fine bushy beard, he has learned wisdom, which seems to consist in eschewing women. A running motif in the film is a ring, a symbol of fidelity, which keeps being passed round. It is an apt metaphor for a film in which most of the characters display bad faith.

Victoria Guerin

Victoria Guerin is the latest entry in a small genre focusing on the organised crime scene in 1990s Dublin, along with The General, about Martin Cahill, who has a peripheral part in this film, and When the Sky Falls, also about Victoria Guerin. Joel Schumacher has fashioned a solid but old-fashioned film about a crusading journo walking the mean streets in her hunt for a scoop that would have seemed schematic had it not been for Cate Blanchett’s nuanced portrayal of a flawed but incredibly brave woman.

Blanchett’s Guerin is depicted as not altogether likeable, being manipulative, ready to rush into print on the word of a single source, and assuming that the ends justify the means, but the cumulative effect is admiration for a woman who was determined not to show others just how afraid she was, and for whom the risks of the job outweighed the celebrity that resulted from it.

Unfortunately Blanchett cannot carry the film by herself, and questions remain unanswered. One wonders precisely why the Irish Republic was such a haven for gangsters during that period; why Guerin’s fellow journalists, who never seem to stir out of the pub and are only missing press passes stuck in their hat bands to complete the stereotype, apparently despised her for her efforts (surely not because, as is suggested, they thought she wrote badly – the aesthetes); and above all what the relationship was between the criminal classes and the equally seedy world of the IRA.

That Schumacher feels he has failed to address these wider issues is suggested by his insistence on a busy style that rushes the narrative along, the camera favouring vertiginous shots that distance the viewer from the human drama. One detects the hand of producer Jerry Bruckheimer in the flashy style, and also in the mawkish sentimentality of the music played over the funeral, which indicates that the filmmakers haven’t the confidence to let the subject speak for itself, but feel the need to manipulate the desired emotional response. Given Guerin’s bravery, that fails to do her justice.