Yes, I Am Busy

December 6, 2009

Reality

I figured a blog after a month was sufficient suspense for the world.  Summarized below are some of my experiences, assembled from the hazy recesses of my memory.

November 9, 2009: The 20th anniversary of socialism’s unexpected collapse saw Kat and I standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate in the rainy cold from about 5:30 p.m. until about 9:30 p.m., during which time most of what we could see was umbrellas.  Much of the crowd consisted of slightly drunk tourists. The orchestra played a handful of depressing modernist tunes and then the Berliner Luft song, which some people really liked. Then all the world leaders got up and gave trite speeches that amounted to more-or-less the same thing. Lech Walesa got up and struck down part of the “domino wall” they built, but got injured a split second later.  By that point, Kat was wet and freezing, so we tried to go home – to no avail! They had blocked off our subway exit, and they had barricades on every street.  Freedom without walls, my behind!  So we carefully wound our way to Friedrichstrasse to take the S-Bahn home.  The next day, I asked the Berliners at my school what their evening was like: they stayed at home and watched the events on television.

Far less mediocre was the retreat for the HFF Potsdam-Babelsberg retreat to Eberswalde.  The purpose of the retreat was ostensibly to party hard and plan sehsüchte, our student film festival in Potsdam-Babelsberg and the largest of its kind in Europe.  Needless to say, I think we did more of the former than the latter, which gave me a serious headache complex on Saturday.  Despite the aching pains from between my ears, I managed to see the absolutely stunning Brandenburg countryside, which reminded of me of Adventures of Werner Holt or I Was 19 (always DEFA films with me).

The following Friday, our sehsüchte team met at the Kino Arsenal for four hours with, oh, none other than the top figures of the Berlinale.  This seems like a once-in-a-lifetime sort of opportunity for me, so I feel like a thorough description is in order.  We first spoke with Dieter Kosslick, director of the entire festival, about financing the Berlinale via the KVB (Kulturveranstaltung des Bundes Berlin) and how one must maintain financial control to survive as an institution.  He then described the Berlinale under Moritz de Hadeln (1980-2001) as organized like a “Stalinist hierarchy” (ouch!) and bid that we spread responsibility for our festival evenly amongst ourselves.  Some fun facts about the Berlinale I learned:  from about 5,700 films submitted, only 350 are accepted for the festival (and the submission fee is non-refundable, naturally); no films between 30 and 60 minutes in length are eligible; there are over 800 official festival guests, but 21,000 accreditations given out … including those for over 4,000 journalists; the Berlinale will be converting to a full HD festival, meaning everything will be projected within 3-4 years as JPEG2000.  Then we spoke with Thomas Hailer (Program Manager), Karin Hoffinger (Program/International Relations), André Stever (Film Materials), Maryanne Redpath (Generation – kids program), Christina Szápáry (Event Management), Susanne Willadt (Accreditation) and Frauke Greiner (Press), all one after the other and regarding what their job looks like, etc.  The chief concern that they seem to have in dealing with the Hollywood majors – but also independents – these days is with piracy, namely that the festival screening copy doesn’t fall onto the Internet somehow.  These days, they have orange, satellite-controlled hard-drives that control when movies can be projected from the data held within.  Crazy stuff.

From the Berlinale meeting, I ran over to Kino Babylon on Rosa Luxembourg Platz to attend the DEFA-Stiftung Award Ceremony as the representative of the DEFA Film Library.  There, I saw everybody from the Who’s Who of GDR cinema there – Erika Richter, Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Andreas Voigt, Ralf Schenk – the list just keeps going.  The awards ceremony itself was rather dry – though the great German-language film journal Revolver deservedly won an award – but included a never-before-seen hilarious short about robbers breaking into a symphony orchestra house using the timing of the music being played in the hall itself.  Afterward, I got a chance to have a long conversation with Stefan Kolditz about his father Gottfried, and other topics, and then hit an excellent Vietnamese restaurant down the street with Kat.

On Saturday morning (11/21), we had brunch in Prenzlauer Berg with screenplay author Katharina Reschke and her partner Oliver Schuette, both of whom taught at Grinnell College for a stint.  The weather was so nice that the whole population of Prenzlauer Berg seemed to be outside to enjoy the sun.  Then we followed the brunch with preparations for a dinner with Luisa Greenfield and Ming Tsao, which was both tasty and highly polemic.

The following Tuesday was the release party of HFF teaching assistant Tobias Ebbrecht’s book DDR erinnern – vergessen.  Okay, so it wasn’t so much a party as it was a roundtable discussion between Tobias, Ralf Forster, Peter Badel and Helke Misselwitz about making documentaries in the GDR.  I think the takeaway points were that they missed the kind of cohesive teamwork one found in film production under socialism, and that whatever anyone says about their work, they made films and those films are well-archived for future generations.

That Wednesday night, Moderat (Modeselektor + Apparat + Pfadfinderei) were throwing their last concert ever in the Astra Kulturhaus in Berlin … and I had to go!  I managed to get my ticket at a discount thanks to some generous scalpers, and then joined the 2,000+ throng of excited Berliners willing to sweat their way through the evening.  What a concert too – they played three encores, even though they’d run out of material!

On Saturday, the Medienwissenschaft students and I were charged with the interesting task of standing by the 3D cinema in the Zoo Palast and ask the incoming patrons why they chose to pay more for the 3D version of A Christmas Carol than simply see the 2D version.  Confronting random Germans with a questionnaire as a foreigner was certainly awkward, but somehow enjoyable.

For Thanksgiving, Kat and I actually decided to take the night off from cooking (which we do with great frequency) and went to the Ypsilon, a Greek restaurant around the corner.  We had fried cheese and mussels to our heart’s content, and it was a lovely time overall.  On Black Friday, we headed to Ming and Luisa’s for a film night – Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Poto and Cabengo (1980) and Jean-Luc Godard’s France/tour/detour/deux/enfants (1977) – about children.  It seemed appropriate to depart said film screening and head to the 80s Night/Terror wave Party held near Jannowitz Brücke.  Awesome music (Soft Cell, New Order and all those folks) swept us away, though we were rather impressed by the fact that Germans tend to dance as if they were in their own isolated bubble/little world… as opposed to the American “bump n’ grind” style that plagues us all.

To counteract the Goth and Terror of the previous evening, we attended the Thanksgiving at the American Church in Berlin.  Even if given the opportunity to do it again, I wouldn’t.  The event was logistically poorly organized (over 1.5 hours waited to get our food… and they ran out of many things), expensive and not at all filled with English-speakers, as it turned out.  The weekend was much improved by a visit to the Jewish Museum the following day:  the exhibits were extensively researched and completely fascinating in every way.  One might say that the architecture of the building itself speaks volumes.

I saw Volker Koepp, another DEFA documentarist, at a Humboldt University talk.  Students tried to tell him his films were obscure and needed to be better advertised, to which he responded that he was both a prolific and internationally recognized filmmaker.  It made all the work on his and others’ behalf at the DEFA Film Library seem worth it right there and then.

One side effect of the awful Thanksgiving was that it alerted us to a FREE opportunity to see the inside of the Berliner Dom:  an English/German Christmas service, complete with singing.  The Berliner Dom is certainly a monument to Protestantism if I’d ever seen one, with statues of Protestant resisters such as Luther looking patriarchally down upon the parishioners.

My first visit to the Filmmuseum Potsdam Sammlungen department yielded a wealth of information on Gottfried Kolditz – so much that I had to make another trip there the following week.  Creepily enough, I think I read his last diary entry before he died, and he died a few months before I was born. Hm?

The Berliner Staatsoper became an agenda item, so we found ourselves watching a thoroughly modern performance of Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus from the 4th row after paying very little.  I was glad for this fact, because I felt like the modern staging screwed with the fantasy elements inherent in the masquerade ball, though I liked (as always) the jail guard Frosch in the third Act, especially as a former GDR flunkie.

That Friday night saw Kat and I attending the weekly shindig held at the Another Country bookstore in Kreuzberg, an English-language bookstore known by every English-speaking expatriate in the city.  We spent an embarrassingly long time glued to the projector screen, watching the second season of The Restaurant, a “coaching” genre reality show from the UK where Raymond Blanc and other judges evaluate pairs of amateur restauranteurs making a go of it.  Beautifully shot and definitely intended for foodies, there were enough characters to sustain long-term interest.

And this week it rained a lot, we held a baking party on Thursday, and Kat and I ordered our tickets to go to Prague for Christmas.

Summary finished, folks.  Was it digestible?  Can I be “digested?”  Yum!

Fantasy

Let me preface this by saying I’ve seen far more movies than this over the past month, but too many titles are swirling around in my head to thoroughly document it in this forum.  THIS is a small selection of some notables:

Dreams that Money Can Buy (dir. Hans Richter, USA 1948)

Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Ferdinand Léger, Hans Richter … the great modernists of the early 20th Century went ahead and made a film.  A work of surrealism that keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, Dreams that Money Can Buy is about a guy who can sell people dreams out of this dark apartment.  Hilarity and trippy sequences ensue.

Red Cliff (dir. John Woo, China 2009)

The best film of the year, hands-down.  A condensed 138 minute version of the four-hour epic based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms literature, Red Cliff is (despite any cuts) John Woo’s finest cinematic achievement.  Ask me more and I’ll tell you.

Painting White in Many Ways

October 22, 2009

Reality

(Kat is coming Sunday afternoon! The excitement had to be noted.)

Saturday proved an intensely social time for the solitary little me.  My first engagement was helping my friend Jan F. (from my Grinnell years) paint his old apartment in Friedrichshain.  Most people might’ve said “Spend an afternoon in Berlin painting?  No way!”  I see it differently:  activities that make me feel like a real person within a larger community are always welcome to me, and what better activity than applying white paint to not-so-white-anymore walls accomplishes this?  Our chief concern was actually the fact that I hadn’t brought any “old clothes” to Germany (would you – seriously – bring along your painting clothes as part of your luggage?), so we rigged together an outfit out of a garbage bag for the day, which worked rather well in the end.

After whitifying ~1.5 rooms in Jan’s apartment, my arm grew tired and I departed for the Yellow Sunshine Diner, an excellent and affordable Berlin eating experience for the vegetarian and vegan-inclined among us, to meet Beverly and Kira.  Our food was delicious – I had the Lappland Burger – and then we migrated to Café Bilderbuch in Schöneberg for drinks and dessert.  A fine day overall!

Monday marked our second day of shooting for the HFF Konrad Wolf film. Again we experienced no problems (our final cut of the film is already turned in, in fact), and were even able to eat/imbibe some of the props…  I will conduct a thorough analysis of our own film after its initial release on Friday, given that its premature summary jeopardizes its humor value.

Scholarly

(In between reality and fantasy, there’s interpretation.  Here are a couple of academic books I’ve read in full and can discuss in brief):

Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race

This was a highly engrossing book, complicated in its argumentation but simple enough in premise:  the world’s problem isn’t racism, but race as a construct, and it is specifically a product of whiteness, a Lacanian master signifier that organizes the paradoxical forces of identity (heritage: where you come from) and visibility (what do you look like, and what’s non-white about it).  Using the Lacanian logic of gender difference to explore the interaction of whiteness as master signifier with non-whiteness as a closed-system of pre-determined (and stereotyped) meanings, Seshadri manages to philosophically clarify what the heck do we mean by race and how we signify it.  Then she heads into her discipline – English literature – for a plethora of philosophical examples to illustrate her points.  A great work of scholarship, if a bit biased toward issues primarily concerning English departments nowadays.

Mark Cronlund Anderson, Cowboy Imperialism and Hollywood Film

Anderson’s book is what I would consider a historian’s academically fueled rant against the right-wing politics of frontier westerns and their pernicious legacy across other genres.  Replete with swear words and hard-line diatribes, his argument basically contends that Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay The Significance of the Frontier in American History has provided an academic justification for the American imperialism of the 20th and 21st Centuries, best sugar-coated through the cinema presence of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and others.  Some of his film selections proved rather interesting:  he prompted me to watch Howard Hawks’ classic Red River (1948) in full and consider Mario van Peebles’ Posse (1993) an extension of the frontier myth through the semblance of re-writing the race rules of the western genre – all useful for the dissertation.  I just wouldn’t recommend the work for those who want an academically disciplined, post-colonial genre discourse analysis across a broad range of national cinemas.

Fantasy

The Power of Nightmares (dir. Adam Curtis, UK 2004)

I remember watching Century of the Self a year ago and thinking it was a fairly decent intellectual history of public relations and the Freudian basis of modern advertising (not to mention commercial narrative, in general).  The Power of Nightmares is kind of like that documentary mixed together with Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds (1974), the recap of what Vietnam was really about.  Three hours of comparing neo-conservatives (as if they were different from neo-liberals, but I digress) to the radical Islamists in the Middle East actually proves quite interesting, since Curtis managed to snag crucial interviews from both sides, delivering a very even-handed and sober account of the web of fear and lies concocted by either party to support their political agendas.  Maybe in ten years we’ll get a documentary about all the domestic damage the neo-cons have wrought too.

The Piano (dir. Jane Campion, UK/New Zealand 1993)

A heavy work of post-colonial, Freudian melodrama, complete with primal scenes, sado-masochism, and conflicts over the power over sexuality and the means of self-expression.  I thought Anna Paquin’s character really held this film together, though all the actors – including Harvey Keitel in his standard “I’m naked!” scene – contributed to the high quality of this film.  And Michael Nyman’s soundtrack is still one of the best modern piano scores out there.  ‘Twas overall better than Forrest Gump (1994), but was probably too haunting (and too “directed by a woman”) to win the Oscar that year.

Lovers on the Road (dir. Jessey Tsang Tsui-shan, China 2008)

There’s an Asian Women’s Film Festival happening at the Kino Arsenal, so I figured I should go take a look at the offerings.  It turned out the filmmaker was present for the screening, which was a short feature about a relationship on the rocks after the couple moves from Hong Kong to Beijing for the boyfriend’s graphic design career.  Our female protagonist leads us through the ambivalence of passionless life transitions, which ultimately leads her to have an affair with an itinerant Japanese barista and then decide perhaps to do something else with her life (we don’t know for sure).  One particularly great portion of the film involves audio interviews conducted with various (one presumes) real people who have recently come to Beijing for assorted purposes.  This documentary realism provides a welcome diversion to an otherwise introverted and claustrophobic (one might say “angsty”) portrayal of relations between two fictional characters.  Ah, alienation.

Apaches (dir. Gottfried Kolditz, GDR/Romania/Poland 1973)

This was/is, bar none, the most popular GDR Indianerfilm, and there are many good reasons for this.  Reason #1:  Gojko Mitic actually co-wrote this one, which means there are lots of scenes of him doing neat things and kicking ass.  Reason #2: All the moralizing of the earlier Indianerfilme was stripped away for a basic good vs. evil scenario:  evil capitalists mass-murder the Apaches because they could, and then the Apaches exact bloody revenge.  Sergio Leone would’ve been proud.  Reason #3: The cool thing Gojko does is firing a flaming arrow at a covered wagon, which then explodes.  If I were 10 years-old and watching this thing (sort of like the logic that drove the recent G.I. Joe movie, in fact), I would’ve been mesmerized.

Pre-Production

October 17, 2009

Reality

This week marked the beginning of our film projects at the HFF Konrad Wolf.  The assignment:  The approximately 100 incoming students are arbitrarily divided into 10 groups of 10 to shoot a 3-minute feature with only a DV camera + accessories at their disposal.  In addition, the students must work in an area that’s different from their Studiengang – cinematography students can’t do camera, acting student can’t act, etc.  We were all collectively given the topic for this year’s project of “Was bisher geschah” (“What happened before now”), which understandably gave us a lot of leeway to come up with ideas.  Most of the time, creative projects assembled arbitrarily seem to lead to artistic tension and inefficient action.  Ours has been quite the opposite:  we decided on a great idea within an hour of brainstorming (which I will disclose once the film is completed), everyone kind of naturally settled into their assorted changed-up roles, and production details were quickly arranged.  Even the first day of shooting went precisely according to plan and gave us some great starting footage.  I’d like to personally thank Alex, Anna, Laura, Maurice, Nick, Burkhart, Cate, Claudio and Veit for such a smooth and entertaining student film experience.  If only all productive endeavors ran like this!

Tuesday was something of a “play-date” – we were let loose inside the Studio Babelsberg Filmpark and given tours of the Babelsberg facilities.  This was a mixed experience for me.  I’ve been working with the legacy of the Babelsberg Studios starting from their genesis under Guido Seeber in 1912 to their Weimar artistic glory to their UFA Nazi heritage to the “totalizing workshop” of the DEFA in East Germany to their purchase by Vivendi and conversion into an international filmmaking prestige location.  So on the one hand, I was visiting very sacred ground for me: the origin point of what we consider to be major-league German studio cinema.  This is where Murnau developed those fantastic tracking shots in The Last Laugh (1924), Heinz Rühmann flitted about in Feuerzangenbowle (1944), Alfred Hirschmeier developed sets for Silent Star (1960), Herwig Kipping tore apart what remained of the GDR in Land Beyond the Rainbow (1991), and Roman Polanski depicted Nazi-occupied Warsaw in The Pianist (2002).  On the other hand, this was all very banal:  here’s the building where they keep the props, there’s the television studios, here’s the fake street for some scenes from Sonnenallee (1999), there’s some retired junk from our stunt show, here’s a few Universal Studios-esque rides, there’s some paraphernalia from assorted terrible German co-productions, here’s the wall where they shot part of the Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008), there’s a set of tourists who actually paid the 18 euros to see this stuff.  In many ways, the Museum für Film und Fernsehen was far more enticing.  Then again, my lack of enchantment might have stemmed from the itinerant hail landing on our heads as we meandered around outside.

On Wednesday night, I had a very nice evening with Sylvia Fischer, a prospective Ph.D. student who must have visited at least half-a-dozen U.S. schools in an effort to literally change her present way of life for the (intellectually) better.  We ate at a restaurant in Friedrichshain, a place with which I’m becoming more familiar by the day, and swapped tips about Berlin and U.S. graduate school respectively.  I’m always happy to meet up with assorted people in Berlin, and the city fortunately makes it quite easy to do so.

Some more observations:

• The consensus among both German nationals and foreign students is that the StaBi (the Berlin city library) kind of sucks and could be greatly improved in a myriad different ways.  Someone oughta form a committee…

• In terms of causing human discomfort, the moist cold of Berlin kicks the butt of the semi-dry cold in Massachusetts hands down, but Iowa in October is still worse than either.

• German waiters are very quick mathematicians (due to their regular dealings with split checks), and probably use much more of their brains than American waiters, whose job is nevertheless much more aggressively about both pleasing the customer and forcing them to leave the establishment.

• Dogs are people here.

Fantasy

Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (dir. Eric Brevig, USA 2008)

Thanks to the formidable resources the HFF Konrad Wolf has placed at our disposal so that we might produce and consume films, I saw this Brendan Fraser adventure flick for free and in glorious 3D.  Now our blogs are not yet 3D-image capable, but in this case I wish they were, because this film can only be described in 3D terms.  In effect, Eric Brevig (of Xena: Warrior Princess fame) created an almost encyclopedic homage to every major 3D trick in the book, from the “yo-yo in your face” to the “flying water droplets” to the “roller coaster” to the “suspend a floating object against a dramatic backdrop.”  Rather than evolving a “new” 3D vocabulary, Brevig seems content to offer a carnivalesque array of 3D attractions nestled in a skeletal, cliché-driven plot designed to get us from one effects sequence to another.  In this respect, the movie thoroughly succeeds from an effects angle, and Fraser proves himself as  the sympathetic human to whom special-FX-related events always seem to happen.

I am Legend (dir. Francis Lawrence, USA 2007)

This post-apocalyptic film was quite spectacularly bad, but instructively so.  The Last Man on Earth (1964) brought us Vincent Price as the doomed hero who would discover he is the villain.  The Omega Man (1971) brought us Charlton Heston in a similar idiom, except less adept at the task of acting.  But I Am Legend (2007) spins an elaborate escapist post-apocalyptic fantasy in which Will Smith becomes a Christ figure and unequivocally saves humanity with his selfless actions – more analogous to Byron Haskin’s 1953 Christian re-interpretation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds than to either of I Am Legend‘s two predecessor adaptations of the Richard Matheson text.  All of the movie’s foregrounding of a decimated Manhattan isle aside, the chief focus is just how virtuous albeit lonely Will Smith is with his dog.  I don’t know what to make of it, other than as Hollywood dumping a pile of syrup on an otherwise perfectly serviceable parable about human decadence and then expecting an introspective piano score, edgy mise-èn-scene, and post-Bourne hand-held camera action sequences to convince us this is a serious work espousing something constructive.  It isn’t.

Destricted (dir. various, UK 2006)

I watched some of this with Steve Wilson before I left, but the HFF just so happened to have a copy on their shelf so I got to watch the rest.  Advertised as “the most controversial and sexually explicit film ever to receive an 18 certificate from the BBFC,” Destricted is a collection of seven short films from acclaimed art-film directors directly exploring pornography and sex in our times.  Larry Clark (Kids, Ken Park) provides us with interviews of young men about how they grew up with pornography, and then proceeds to cast a young man paired with a porn-star for some on-camera action.  Clark’s film highlights the indexical as well as the audience-performance aspects of pornography.  Gaspar Noé’s film (I Stand Alone, Irreversible) is a strobe-heavy exploration of a man sexually assaulting a blow-up doll in his room.  Sam Taylor-Wood’s film “Death Valley” is an actor candidly masturbating against the backdrop of, well, Death Valley.  Matthew Barney strapped himself naked inside some massive machine and shaped some pottery with his member.  Richard Prince distances the audience from a cliché porn flick with Boards of Canada-style ambient music and the fuzzy color distortion that one gets when one crosses film and digital video.  Marco Brambilla has a brilliant 2-minute clip of thousands of images from romance and pornography cut together to overload one’s senses with the conventions of the porn industry.  Marina Abramovic uses a combination of live action and animation to portray assorted Balkan superstitions involving the genitalia.  All in all a worthwhile view, but only if you’ve got the stomach for both the ugly bits and the strobe effects.

Red River (dir. Howard Hawks, USA 1948)

Whoever thinks Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) is the first gay cowboy movie has obviously never set eyes on this classic.  In the era when movies seemed to possess a cinematic subconsciousness and deep social subtext (Gilda, Fury, Casablanca, Some Like It Hot all spring to mind), Red River explores the macho manly activities of cattle-herding and trail-blazing from Texas to Missouri, as John Wayne and Montgomery Clift meanwhile develop one of the most bizarre, sexually repressed man-on-man relationships ever to hit the silver screen.  I watched it for the clear justifications for American imperialism, but it turned out to be far more entertaining in its subtext than its principle plot.

Whoa

October 5, 2009

Reality

I have titled this blog entry based not only on Keanu Reeves’ favorite expression, but also on my sudden feeling of being stunned in the middle of the action.

A re-cap of my weekend:  I celebrated my 27th birthday on Friday, first by going over to Luisa and Ming’s place in Kreuzberg for a nice lunch where we discussed a future mini-film festival that we’ll hold in their apartment.  It was extremely wonderful to be engaged in an intense discussion about film, politics and what have you with several earnest professionals who know what they’re talking about.  I then made myself a cake and then went to Hilary Bown’s apartment with Kira to play classic Monopoly.  Now I categorically hate Monopoly – we might as well record 30 of our dice rolls on a chart and see who wins – but coupling it with late-night drinking made it alright.  On Saturday and Sunday, I  got out to La Foccaceria in Mitte – a great, cheap pizza place – and to the Brandenburg Gate to watch the “Riesen” (“Giants”) get dressed by about 20 puppeteers for their march through Berlin.  (Since there were way too many people there for the puppets, I left after they crossed through the Brandenburg Gate… which was itself a spectacle, since I didn’t know if the guy in the diving suit would make it).

Now for the “whoa” part:  our orientation program at the HFF Potsdam today.  Ever since I arrived in Berlin, I’ve been given a handful of unstructured weeks in which to A) get settled in my apartment, B) waste time at the LABO trying to get a visa, C) write some fiction and D) structure my dissertation research.  As of today, that unstructured time is officially gone.  For the next three weeks, I belong to the HFF, which means I’m now “sneaking in” my research at night.  Our orientation program began with a stunning “country boy” rendition of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” performed by one of the students, followed by a pep talk from Stefan Arndt (Run Lola Run, Goodbye Lenin!) in which he basically said “I never went to film school – I just made films.  Use this film school opportunity to watch and make films!”  Then we were all introduced in our different fields – film direction, production, film and media studies (my area), cinematography, acting, music composition, etc. – and handed these nifty tote bags.  After we met with our respective faculties, we then returned to the auditorium to be divided up into 10 groups – irrespective of our respective fields – that in 3 weeks time will each complete a “introductory film.”  I’m only slightly nervous about the fact that our group primarily contains people from film direction, production, screenwriting and film studies, and nobody from cinematography, editing, sound, or film music.  This may influence what film we wind up producing. We were given a tour today of the facilities and of all the state-of-the-art film technology that the HFF now has to offer, so only tomorrow do we have to think about the film we’re going to make.  But still:  it was quite funny to suddenly show up and be asked to make a film in three weeks with a group of complete strangers.

Nevertheless – and I think this is the larger point – these people soon grew (over the course of one day!) to be more than just strangers.  I think there’s just under 100 people in our entering class in total, which means our departments aren’t that big and everybody is very collegial with one another.  Add to that the fact that I’m like an exotic animal, being an American who speaks very good German and has a hyper-acute knowledge of East/West German film history, and Bam! I found myself in conversations with people the entire day.  I shared some music with one student, bantered with the media studies professors about recent films, and gave a group of my peers a crash course on the historical significance of Konrad Wolf’s I Was 19.  That is to say, I am suddenly academically at home as well.  BUT being academically at home is exhausting to say the least, so I’d better hit the sack for the next day of intensive introduction to the top film school in Germany…

Fantasy

Never Drive A Car While You’re Dead (dir. Gregor Dashuber, Germany 2009)

Possibly the greatest animated short I’ve seen in a long time, Never Drive a Car While You’re Dead should be up for an Academy Award – except those only exist to praise Pixar these days.  The premise?  A guy in a crappy apartment – vaguely resembling Cahit’s from Gegen die Wand (2004) – tries to commit suicide, but feels compelled instead to play his piano.  This piano quite literally drives him into the nightmarish hellhole neighborhood he lives in, which has been shaped by neo-liberal capitalism and Baudrillard’s “apocalypse of the Real,” resplendent with violent penguins, Siamese twin prostitutes, and assorted suffering people.  A group of like-minded people follow him to his own grave, at which point he wakes up, tries to commit suicide and (I’m giving away the twist) poetically fails.  This film had an understated, well-executed soundtrack, an animation style drawing from both classic Thames cartoons (e.g. Count Duckula) as well as MTV, and a fiercely sarcastic message that it manages to maintain throughout the piece.  I think it’s amazing that they showed us such a bleak product as an introduction to the HFF, but it’s bold, aggressive and has a clear message.  Bravo!

The Falcon’s Trail (dir. Gottfried Kolditz, GDR 1968)

Well, it turns out I watched White Wolves too early, as it’s the sequel to this film.  White men find gold in the Black Hills, and so the evil capitalists maneuver to try and take the land away from the Dakotas.  Kolditz’s first foray into Indianerfilm territory only sort of succeeds:  he doesn’t include as many stunts with Gojko Mitic as Konrad Petzold but, man, does he go out of his way to depict an outright massacre of the Dakotas by the white men!  This is a recurring trope throughout the DEFA Indianerfilme that we always find ourselves somehow vicariously experiencing some massacre of one tribe or another.  This reminds me of Quinn Slobodian’s article on “corpse polemics” and the fascination among the West German tabloids for the grotesquely murdered and mutilated African bodies.
Cool Thing Gojko Does: Mount and ride a bareback horse.
The other major detail is also the crazy war dances performed which harken back to Kolditz’s musical training and serve as a precursor to the crazy alien dances in In the Dust of the Stars (1976).

Fatal Error (dir. Konrad Petzold, GDR 1970)

Okay, instead of gold, this time the white men find oil on the Shoshone’s land and conspire to take it away.  The Shoshone are bribed with, of all things, alcohol to make them weak (the same trope is used in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Bouncer Vol. 6 The Black Widow) so they can simply be cheated and murdered.
Cool Thing Gojko Does: Actually, this is more Armin Mueller-Stahl’s movie (good thing his cowboy grew up with the Shoshone), but Gojko does take on drunk Shoshones armed with flaming torches who want to set fire to the oil tower on their property.

I Was 19 (dir. Konrad Wolf, GDR 1968)

Of all things, the HFF Konrad Wolf spends the first day – ta da! – showing us a film by Konrad Wolf.  This was good, because I’ve seen the film plenty of times earlier and was able to see it through new eyes on a 35mm print of middling quality.  I was most impressed this time with the way in which Konrad Wolf’s autobiography and his unified film vision sometimes come into conflict.  He toys with details that he remembers from his past, but such details intrude on otherwise more seamless cuts and more transparent characters.  Still, there are few better films to use to discuss the Russian invasion of Germany ca. late April 1945.


Wedding Boxes and Bauhaus

October 1, 2009

Reality

Before I dive into any more long-winded exegesis, here are a few more fun things I’ve observed over the past few days (in digestible bullet point form!):

• Many of the musicians who play in the subway cars for money rely on some sort of pre-recorded musical back-up these days.  Case in point:  a violinist who wore a backpack with a giant hole where the speaker poked out.

• Americans are treated far better by Germans now that Obama is president.  No B.S.

• If an American walks into a German Starbucks, they put on some hits from back home… from about 2-3 years ago.  But most Germans don’t go to Starbucks because it’s too expensive and the coffee’s not that great.

• If you’re in you’re a male teenager, it’s your God-given right, even duty, to horse around dangerously close to the edge of the S-Bahn tracks.  Just observing.

I took several important steps within the past several days that make me feel more like a real citizen of Berlin rather than some weirdo pretender (though I am admittedly a weirdo).  One was to get a library account – took 3 minutes and was totally painless except for the 25 euros I shelled out for the year…  The second was to actually think about the menu for the week, make a list, and go grocery shopping at the Turkish open-air market on Großgörschenstrasse, Lidl and Netto for the things I will need to eat later on.  I will be baking myself a cake on Friday, because it happens to be my birthday, and I can’t get good donuts here.  The third was to have my semester ticket start, which means I can use the buses, S-Bahn and subway as much as I want without having to continuously count up the change in my pocket or put it on my bank card.  What a relief to be able to decide to go somewhere and not have to debate with my sore-ass legs about whether it was really within walking distance from my apartment!  Borrowing books, finding some order in one’s eating habits, and being pre-paid to travel around on a whim – I guess that’s citizenship to me, no thanks to the Ausländerbehörde!

Fulbrighter and filmmaker Luisa Greenfield was to join me at the Berlin screening of Ulrike Ottinger’s The Korean Wedding Chest at the Akademie der Künste am Hanseatenweg last night, so I showed up unreasonably early (as is my wont) and plopped down in front of the theater.  An older couple sat near me and smiled at me, which of course prompted a conversation about who I was, etc.  Then after the man had left to get her a tea, the woman asked me if, as a German film scholar, I knew a director named Hans Jürgen Pohland.  It turns out I did:  he made the jazz drummer semi-documentary/feature film Tobby (1961), which I watched in order to be remotely informed about a paper on a panel I chaired earlier this year.  Anyway, she revealed that her husband, Siegfried Hofbauer, wrote the screenplay that Pohland barely used anyway.  Hofbauer then went on to work as a production designer on Volker Schlöndorff’s Academy-Award winning The Tin Drum (1979) and still worked as a jazz musician and painter in Berlin.  I thought it was amazing that I was one of the few people from the U.S. who’d likely seen the film and was sitting across from its screenwriter!  So he came back with the tea and we talked film for awhile, particularly about how Tobby (the drummer) then got into some major-league drugs and the film was likely the high point of his career.  Then Luisa showed up and we talked more film before, during and after the screening.  Ottinger’s comments about her own film were incredibly insightful, and I’m now determined to see that which I haven’t seen of her oeuvre.  She’s way better than Herzog, and for good reason:  she took courses from the likes of Pierre Bourdieu, Louis “I Accidentally Strangled My Wife” Althusser, and Claude Lévi-Strauss.  Her films are symbolically anthropological, for lack of a better description.  More below.

Anne Hector and I met up the next morning to go to the big Bauhaus exhibit at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, which was jam-packed with tourists of all ages.  Squeezing through loud tourist groups while trying not to knock over valuable pieces of early 20th Century art, Anne and I managed to have a good time looking at some of the original Walter Gropius pieces as well as Paul Klee, Oskar Schlemmer and the rest of the Bauhaus scene.  I’m convinced I would’ve either gotten along great at the Bauhaus academies, or I would’ve hated it the first day and thrown a fuzzy amorphous shape at their form/color studies!  My trail then led me once again to the HFF, because it was October 1st.  Why October 1st, you ask?  Well, I’ve decided in October – December to devote each month to a particular genre I’m researching for my dissertation:  October’s for westerns, November’s for science fiction, December’s for musicals (since, heck, it’s Christmas Time!).  So I easily picked up several western DVDs to take home and watch, surprised at how little of a hassle it was to do so.  I think I’m going to like it at my host institution; it seems designed around film geeks.

Fantasy

The Korean Wedding Chest (dir. Ulrike Ottinger, Germany 2009)

Ottinger’s previous films, particularly Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia and her China series, explore encounters between our so-called “modern” world and more traditional ways of life.  Her latest film (NOT her upcoming vampire comedy with Elfriede Jelinek Die Blutgräfin (2010)) does exactly that:  nestled in the mega-city of Seoul lies a wedding industry so seemingly “traditional” it boggles the mind.  Seoul quite literally opened itself up to her so she could document one family’s journey through the engagement process to the wedding.  As one would expect, there’s a lot of coaching by women who work in bridal shops, who seem to be the real keepers of this tradition.  A married man myself, I asked myself where Kat and I might’ve gotten the money together to have even a remotely “Korean” wedding (actually, I also cried part way through because of recollections of our own wedding — I’m presently a lonely husband waiting until the end of the month…)  No answers present themselves:  these events offer none of the flexible glamour of the American wedding.  Like any wedding, all of what transpires is carefully scripted to pull off exactly the right photo/video documentation of the event.  That being said, Ottinger’s film succeeds in defying this convention and instead showing all the human bits of imperfection at the seams of these highly traditional, scripted affairs.  You should see it for the colors alone.

White Wolves (dir. Konrad Petzold, GDR 1969)

A proper Gojko Mitic Indianerfilm, White Wolves is a fantastic mess of celluloid best watched by either a crowd of very cynical people or 5 year-olds.  Here’s the plot:  the Dakotas have been driven from their lands by General Mining Industries run by the evil capitalist Mr. Harrington.  Harrington’s so evil that he hires bandits to steal his own money from himself so he doesn’t have to pay his miners, and then continuously blames the attacks on the renegade Dakotas.  Mitic’s happy Dakota wife is, of course, melodramatically killed by the bandits, and so he takes merciless revenge on the bandits.  Now on to the important aspects like…

The Cool Gojko Mitic Shtick: At one point, he gets a hold of a box full of dynamite sticks, which he uses in combat by throwing them at people and shooting them in the air with his rifle.

The Strong Woman Scene: Most of these Indianerfilme have at least one scene to show they’re not totally misogynistic, and White Wolves is no exception.  The sheriff’s wife manages to trick a guard holding her captive into going into the saloon, at which point she steals his wagon.

The Heavy-Handed Communist Scene: The workers flat-out don’t believe the Dakotas stealing their money nonsense – in fact, no one but the villains believe it throughout the film – and demand their fair wages.  When the villain tries to ply them with cheap liquor, they turn it down outright.

The Battle to Reside

September 29, 2009

In the darkness before the darkness before dawn

In the isle of desolation amidst a city of color

A few figures, shadows and backpacks, congregate

A few form a haphazard line extending back from the gate

This gate of the LABO is the absolute border of the country

This gate demarcates our courteous selves

From their mechanism of human reduction and

From our stampeding hive selves, desperate

But all is now quiet as the sky re-casts itself from black to gray

But all is silent, though we all know a little broken English

More vehicles drop off more shadows, the line grows

More vehicles drive by their early shifts, perplexed drivers

Wonder about the line, its curvature along the industrial river bank

Wonder about the Ausländer, Fremden, Farbigen, Amis

No reasonable person save s/he who needs a living

No reasonable anonymous group should be up at this hour

Lights flicker on behind the gate; the dawn is drowned

Lights flicker on to slip silhouettes on forgotten shadows

All are of one mind – the page with the stamp is needed

All are well-informed – only here, only now, only when first

And the gates open

And the flood patters forth

At least 30 meters down the cement walkway to the door

At least 100 desperate shadows suddenly illuminated

Trampling desperately, cattle running to feed

Trampling desperately, the line’s composition changes

Now it’s a smashed amoeba up against a tower of cement and glass

Now it’s time for the shadows to hurry up and wait

The sun’s time has come, its beauty covered by a train

The sun’s arrival is heralded by few anymore, let alone by the shadows

More conversation – civilization resumes its “civil” root

More conversation – mutual vipers flick tongues in ignorance

Rumors fly:  some have been standing there since 3 a.m., you need to get your visa before you can register for classes, only 50 people were given numbers last time, this is the 4th time I’ve been here, when they open the doors you have to squeeze in, they’re denying Egyptians for some reason, Americans have it easy, Americans have it hard, our late friend’s Irene’s going to join the line, this is ridiculous, this is stupid, I thought the Germans were supposed to be efficient, what kind of visa do you need to stay?  we ran out of days three days ago, I have a child – coming through, you should see the bathrooms in there, are we even in front of the right door?

Cantankerous, an official warns us to back away – they need to get in

Cantankerous, a surly Polish woman scoffs at this absurdity

“The ones who’ve been working are us!” she barks

“The ones who are making it worse – that’s all of you!”

Pronouncing his German very slowly and loudly makes him understood

Pronouncing his syllables for the 25% who know the language

The rest look around for broken English translations

The rest mock and jeer and call and mob; the only right they have now

We are to be let in a few at a time, so we don’t crush our way in

We are to let those lucky few with appointments through, the ones with papers

So many stones have been laid in the basket of our visas, yet

So many blasted hopes have been laid at the LABO’s threshold

7:00! Yet another surge, the waves like in concerts crashing against security

7:00! Yet more shouting from the German official, letting a few in

A guard with his back to us puts his arms across the door

A guard lets those few who ran first to get their prize

Hatred swells in the mass:  against them, the guards, the officials inside

Hatred swells in the guards: against the unruly students, some of them scientists

Half-an-hour later, the crush subsides, hope shoved to another dark morning

Half-an-hour later, guards mop the sweat from their brow, cursing the hordes and their
Inconsiderate outright forthright savage uncouth unprecedented impolite forceful
Impudent adolescent murderous screaming bloodthirsty thrashing crushing breaking

Dark skin American clothing headscarves shifty eyes hairy ears bushy eyebrows

Greasy hair unwashed faces grabbing hands strange accents broken English

It isn’t their fault – talk to the boss, get him to hire everyone back, make extra hours

It isn’t their fault – people need visas to eat and the visas eat the people

This is what Ordnung looks like.

The Bedeviled Medium

September 29, 2009

Reality

Saturday brought a stormy conclusion to the Kamera als Waffe conference, which might have been expected given the topic of Nazi propaganda cinema within a larger historical context.  But first the uncontroversial papers:  Kay Hoffmann (University of Stuttgart) presented Roel Vande Winkel’s paper on the Nazi newsreels made to export, and how foreign audiences wouldn’t just accept the German newsreel dubbed into their language (ironically like the Germans’ present means of consuming the world’s TV/film culture), but required new perspectives on propaganda events.  Rainer Rutz presented on the fascinating magazine “Signal” that the Nazis produced for European sales, combining images of well-groomed soldiers taking some hot-bodied time off and blonde beauties bathing on captured French beaches.  Martina Werth-Mühl from the Bundesarchiv told us not to use YouTube to watch these newsreels, but received resounding applause when she suggested a reduction of price per newsreel at the Bundesarchiv might be to everyone’s benefit.  Judith Keilbach argued that the use of propaganda footage in television documentaries generally reproduce the same effects of their original intended purpose:  to demonstrate Nazi dynamism and power in elaborately staged war spectacles.

Then the moment of controversy struck when Michael Kloft, the main historical film producer for the ZDF (Das Goebbels Experiment and 29 others), took the podium and said, effectively, that he uses Nazi newsreel footage because it was the footage taken at the time, and it educates the children visually about a time period that is fast losing all of its eyewitnesses.  His talk produced visible tension in a room where the medium of television had clearly already been consigned to the 11th circle of Hell.  Thus once Kloft was done with his speech, several very eloquent arguments about the “Gleichwertigkeit” toward Nazi footage since the introduction of television in the 50s were posed against Kloft’s flippant remarks.  You could tell that among these history professors, a kind of ferocious anger concerning all of the facts they had to make their students unlearn every year thanks to television was promptly unleashed.  We ended up staying past the end of the conference to conclude the very intensive discussion with the question of whether television can be allowed to become an “open” medium like film, where the eyes and ears are permitted to wander in a space and evaluate the “rough edges” of history on their own terms.

On Sunday morning, I had breakfast at the famous Café Bilderbuch – my third visit since I’ve arrived – on Akazienstrasse.  The café has a reputation thanks to its Viennese style décor, classy music selection, newsletter-styled menus and, of course, excellent coffee and meals named after storybook characters.  There I sat and wrote most of what is to be the next chapter in the Peppersmoke Players series.  It gives me something to do with my hands, after all.

After the usual laundry and dishes labor befitting Sunday, I found some time to attend Kino Arsenal yet again for a series of underground 8mm films made in eastern bloc countries.  Claus Löser – journalist, film historian and curator of the exhibit – was present to introduce the films, as was one of the filmmakers Ramona Köppel-Welsh.  The crowd itself was interesting:  a mostly silent bunch of maybe half-a-dozen Poles, two Russians, two Germans and myself.  I think the language barrier was significant enough that only the Germans and I had a conversation after the film.  The nice thing about the Kino Arsenal, of course, is that they give you free wine and pretzels afterwards, so Claus, Ramona, the Germans and I stood around for a time and chit-chatted about the GDR and the United States.  Ramona, it turns out, was invited to Los Angeles in 1993… during the L.A. riots.  That gave her a lasting impression of the States I maybe wouldn’t envy but, hey!, it was probably a more accurate picture of our divisions than most visitors get.

I’ll finish the “Reality” section of this blog with a brief summary of Monday, when I visited a personal Mecca:  the Filmmuseum Potsdam.  Located in a beautiful building with horse statues leaping from the walls near the train station, the Filmmuseum Potsdam is a repository for, well, all things DEFA (with a spot of UFA and Pro-Babelsberg here and there).  Seriously, though:  every major film and a good chunk of the minor ones had some sort of artifact or remnant on display in the museum, from the concentration camp outfit used in Jacob the Liar to the bow Gojko Mitic fought the white Americans with in Falcon’s Trail.  Even the counterfeiting kit from the Oscar-winning The Counterfeiters was there in all its faux-1940s glory.  At the end of the tour, I went to sign the guest book and noticed a lot of people complaining about the overflowing presence of DEFA materials over UFA and other materials.  “Bah!” I said, and wrote a proper defense of the East German studios right there in the guest book.

Blog entries to come:

• A poem on my surreal and awful experience at the Ausländerbehörde

• Several short reviews of academic books I’m reading for my dissertation

• Peppersmoke Players Chapter 3 – Rehearse or Die

Fantasy

Naked Lunch (dir. David Cronenberg, USA 1991)

Boy, what a trip!  Similar to Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka (1993) as a kind of tribute to a whole surrealist author’s body of work, Naked Lunch is a film about the destabilization of the armored male subject through the psychic/psychotic transformative experience of writing.  This time around I noticed several things:  the rampant homoeroticism (complete with talking anuses), the Orientalism (kind of done Madman style:  a stereotyped “chinaman” and Moroccan “exoticism” are both foregrounded at different points), the utter fakeness of the sets, Peter Weller’s droll mumbling as Bill Lee (see Ralph Fiennes in Cronenberg’s Spider for the same), and the dissonant soundtrack created by Howard Shore and Ornette Coleman.  Now I kind of see the Naked Lunch story as kind of a cross between Camus’ L’etranger and Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle:  the former due to the narrator’s utter lack of Self becoming grounds for a murderous act, and the latter because there’s a sort of extraordinary sexual journey that Bill Lee goes through without actually having sex with anybody (e.g., Fridolin and his night wanderings).

Vivre sa vie (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, France 1962)

Twelve scenes that show Godard’s contempt for conventional Hollywood narrative that’ll leave you breathless.  The movie was rather dull this time around, but maybe it’s because I’ve worked extensively with One Plus One, Tout va bien and Alphaville, which I find to be much better executed films (and don’t all revolve around Anne Karina’s visage).

The Third Man (dir. Carol Reed, UK 1949)

Speaking of well-executed films, Carol Reed’s nihilistic classic put its hooks back into me after I watched The True Glory for the first time on Friday.  An incessant zither soundtrack backs this film noir story set in the dark streets of Vienna, where sharp lines such as “death is at the bottom of all things” are delivered so non-chalantly that they make this sort of filmmaking look easy.  My theory is that Reed, along with Billy Wilder, did his time during the war with the allied propaganda, thereby earning the right to be totally sarcastic about the peace afterward.  Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948) and, more to the point, Sunset  Boulevard (1950) both peel back the post-war consumer society to reveal a disturbed undertone of fractured identities and incoherent culture.

Ein-Blick (dir. Gerd Conradt, FRG 1986)

Conradt set up a camera to take 1 frame per second for 12 hours, and then recorded East Berlin from West Berlin.  Every time anyone looks at the camera, he freezes frame for just a moment.  The film gives you a good overall impression as to what a day in the life of a security camera might be like, except with more exciting motion and lighting.

Z mojego okna (dir. Józef Robakovski, Poland 1978-2000)

Another stationary camera set-up, this film is translated to roughly “Outside My Window.”  Indeed, Robakovski basically took footage from outside his window for 22 years, recording people running errands, assorted state parades and ultimately a five-star hotel being built that cut off his magnificent window view.  What struck me about this film was that, unlike Conradt’s, it wasn’t anonymous surveillance.  The filmmaker expresses in a voice-over the story of every person whom he spies on, revealing an urban environment that’s actually more like a community than most U.S. cities.

Trabantomania (dir. János Vetö, Hungary 1982)

A music video for a Hungarian band Trabant, Trabantomania is not so much about the East German car – the Trabant – as it is about showing us silly footage of dolphins and seals, and of the band sitting around in a messy apartment.  You still get a definite impression of the interdisciplinarity and intertextuality that underlie such experimental films.

Zestokaja bolezu musicia (dir. Igor and Gleb Aleyinkov, USSR 1987)

This abrasive picture is about this guy who gets on a subway car, two security officials proceed to sodomize him, then leave.  I liked the high-contrast film filters used.  It looked a little bit like Aronovsky’s π (1998).

Lesorub (dir. Yevgeny Yufit, USSR 1985)

This amusing film is about bodies against snow, mostly wrestling with each other, but sometimes doing perverse things with a dummy.  This one’s probably my favorite of the short films.

Sanctus, Sanctus (dir. Thomas Werner, GDR 1988)

In 1988, Thomas Werner and a lot of the East German 8mm scene walked in a May 1st parade, passing Erich Honecker, Egon Krenz and all the party cronies at the time.  The soundtrack is a beautiful church hymn that at once mocks and commemorates the GDR within a single musical line.

Konrad, sprach die Frau Mama (dir. Ramona Koeppel-Welsh, GDR 1989)

An anxious picture if I’ve ever seen one, Konrad, sprach die Frau Mama (ich gehe weg und du bleibst da! – Struwwelpeter) has been released on our Counter-Images DVD at the DEFA Film Library, but it was much better on the big screen.  Disturbing images of little children weren’t what almost got Koeppel-Welsh thrown in jail over this picture, but rather a little footage of the Berlin Wall shot from a hospital window.  The realm of the politically/culturally forbidden past 1961 usually centered around the thematization of the Wall, and this film proved to be no exception.

Night of the Nazis

September 25, 2009

Reality

I decided it might be a good idea to get out of the apartment and do something remotely academic before my brain shrinks with age (my birthday’s six days away… and I have no plans yet).  The Deutsche Kinemathek was having a symposium called “Kamera als Waffe” (“Camera as Weapon”) on the propaganda films of World War II, so I cast in my lot and registered for it, thinking I might meet some interesting people there.  Turns out I was right.

The first day (Thursday), I grabbed a coffee at the beginning of the conference and stood near another gentleman, who asked me in which room it was to take place.  We struck up a conversation and we were nearly inseparable for the rest of the night.  He was Herr Göres, a former GDR customs-agent-turned-journalist who had worked for Den Tagesspiegel among other newspapers.  He was also one of the most outspoken people in the audience, who’d make loud comments to people sitting next to them (i.e., me) during other people’s academic talks… as if it were a press conference or something.  The summary of the papers were as follows:   Rainer Rother, director of the Berlinale, introduced the whole shebang.  Klaus Kreimeier depicted war propaganda newsreels as a kind of sensory-motor means of warfare, inciting people toward war activities through the creation of a coherent fantasy world with all the clichés.  According to Kreimeier, the films were shot with a “secret screenplay” in mind, not as documentation.  Miriam Arani showed us some gruesome pictures and told us about how the Germans pretended dead Poles whom they killed were dead ethnic Germans (kind of like The Gleiwitz Case).  Klaus Hesse, a big guy at the Topographie des Terrors, showed us some private photos of propaganda photographer Arthur Grimm that illustrated German occupation in Poland as a kind of civilized police activity – all staged for the cameras.  There’s a kind of collapse between public and private sphere there.  Then Karl Prümm introduced Feldzug in Polen as a symphonic newsreel designed to make the invasion of Poland itself seem like a work of art.

On the second day (today/Friday) Ralf Forster from the Filmmuseum Potsdam demonstrated how the newsreel production process was a well-oiled, highly modern machine that, well, more or less delivers on the “camera as weapon” thesis.  Matthias Struch provided an array of clips to show how authorship and individual directorial signatures could be found in the films of Walter Frentz, Hans Ertl and Heinz von Jaworsky.  Dirk Alt highlighted a few newsreels fragmentarily shot in color and why WWII wasn’t generally shot in color.  Hans-Peter Fuhrmann elaborated on the acoustic dimension of the newsreels and how music and/or sound effects frame the works’ sense of realism.  Brian Winston introduced The True Glory as a very effective piece of indirect propaganda:  acknowledging the negative and cynical sides of reality before turning to its myth-making, collectivist project.

After tonight’s screening, I had the pleasure of having a beer with Mr. Winston, Kay Hoffmann and another very nice woman who worked heavily with documentary film.  It turns out that this is THE Brian Winston who wrote Misunderstanding Media as well as Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries, and who produced this classic Paper Tiger analysis of TV news.  So now that I understood that I was gossiping with one of the luminaries of documentary ethics and Communication Studies, I realized that when he talked about “Ricky” needing to get his autobiography out, he meant Richard Leacock, and when he referred to “Bobby” or “Stuart,” he meant Robert Flaherty and Stuart Hall respectively.  He’s currently working on the documentary on Flaherty, which caused a lot of discussion about Nanook of the North (1922) and Louisiana Story (1948).  I learned maybe more in that one hour than in several Kamera als Waffe conferences, but so it goes.

Naturally, I remain without a student U-bahn pass and I’m cheap so I hoofed it back to my apartment from Potsdamer Platz after the beer.  My 30-minute nighttime journey on foot revealed the following items of note:

• A row of aggressive prostitutes near the Bülowstrasse U-Bahn station (but I was on the other side of the street)
• A hookah bar covered in a pale haze that was sucked outside as soon as someone opened the door.
• An older man with an open bottle of Baileys who nearly wandered into traffic.
• A local barber shop has a lot of activity behind its steel doors at night, meaning I think it’s a front for something else

Ah, the City of Sand.

Fantasy

Feldzug in Polen (1939/40, dir. Fritz Hippler)

Fritz Hippler, that lovely cutting-room documentarist who later put together the anti-Semitic montage The Eternal Jew (1940), worked together with Herbert Windt, composer of the score for Triumph of the Will (1935), on the first major documentary about the German blitzkrieg victory in Poland.  With enthusiastic marches, maps with big arrows on them, and exciting house-to-house fighting footage that may or may not have been staged, the film shows us how the Wehrmacht kicked the living tar out of the Polish army.  The general dynamic revolves around A) the continuous victory of the advancing German army and B) the continuous retreat of the cowardly-but-threatening Polish army, conspicuously eliding the presence of both German casualties and the nuances of Polish defeat (something about concentration camps?).  In my humble opinion, it reminded me of a music video:  structured more around its own self-gratifyingly simplistic narrative and the foregrounded symphonic music than around documentation of an event or the commemoration of something significant in detail.

The True Glory (1945, dir. Carol Reed)

An epic piece of propaganda filmmaking that kicks the living tar out of Feldzug in Polen, The True Glory provides a picture of the WWII battle on the western front toward victory told entirely through voice-over by real troops and General Eisenhower.  It is, in a word, gripping.  Ken Burns’ The War (2007) shows the message hasn’t changed a bit from when the U.S. and the UK hadn’t even defeated Japan yet:  the war was hard and fought by regular people called to do a great, global act of goodness requiring epic bravery, etc., etc.  The point is that, after this film, you feel both educated about the basic military history of the UK/American/Russian victory and certainly feel very good that all those Nazis are conquered, even though the Nazi Germans are not necessarily portrayed in a negative light.  Another key difference from Feldzug in Polen:  the bodies of American and British soldiers are depicted, which forces how “hard” the war was.  See this to see from where Saving Private Ryan (1998) effectively culled its most powerful material for the first 20 minutes.

Film Binge

September 23, 2009

Reality

On Saturday, I visited the Museum für Film und Fernsehen in Potsdamer Platz.  It is now a place with which I am thoroughly familiar:  after 5.5 hours of me poring over every inch of every exhibit, they had to kick me out since they were closing.  Of certain interest beyond original documents associated with films I know and love such as Joe May’s Asphalt, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, etc., was a giant wall with nothing but TV screens containing post-war German directors and buttons one could push to see a sampling of their work.  I loved it – I was able to get to know one or two new directors and their work in such a short time span!  It’s quite clear, however, that the museum is primarily concerned with Marlene Dietrich, her legacy and her estate.  They even had the Negerpuppe and the Chinesenpuppe that were featured in Sternberg’s The Blue Angel which she brought around with her for good luck.  That’s going into my dissertation somewhere…

On Monday morning, I took a trip down to Potsdam-Babelsberg just to see what it was like.  The film school itself blew me away:  a giant four building structure encased in a cocoon of glass and bound together with assorted stairwells and catwalks.  Of course, I was looking for a bureaucrat in that labyrinth, so I suddenly felt like I was in Brazil or something (don’t you know we imagine in movies now?).  I would go up a stairwell and only reach half the offices on a floor, because the others were on the other side of the catwalk.  In addition, you can check out films from the library and watch them in these weird little space-age pods that slide around in the lobby…

The only downside to the earlier part of this week?  No Fulbright money yet to speak of, no good opportunity to get a Visa until after I register for classes (which I need a Visa to do ironically…), and with no money, little travel in and around the city.  This should all change within a week or so, one hopes.

Fantasy

Signale – ein Weltraumabenteuer (1970, dir. Gottfried Kolditz)

I watched this East German stylistic riff on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey late at night in the States, and I don’t remember finishing it then.  Since it forms a core part of my dissertation research, I sat through it again and probably will do so once more in the future.  Though I am a fan of Gottfried Kolditz and have seen most of his oeuvre, this film is one of his least successful productions by far.  The plotline is this:  the Ikarus spaceship is hit by an asteroid cluster and his badly damaged, such that the Laika has to mount a rescue mission to save the ship’s crew.  I remember East German critics bashing this picture on account of it being a “space adventure without excitement,” and now I fully agree with them.  The editing of the film is outright terrible, such that one has little orientation between assorted effects shots and where characters are positioned.  And speaking of effects shots – these largely consist of the camera spinning like in 2001 and leaving it to our imagination that we’re in OUTER SPACE.  For my dissertation though, the multicultural starship crew is a prime example of what I’m talking about in terms of the establishment of race hierarchies amidst an “equal” set of crew members.  It is also interesting that the African-American expatriate Aubrey Pankey turns up as he did in Osceola: The Right Hand of Vengeance, again in a strange bit part.

Whisky mit Wodka (2009, dir. Andreas Dresen)

A thoroughly delightful film that also thoroughly references film history as well as the exigencies of filmmaking.  Wolfgang Kohlhaase’s script is elegant in its simplicity:  an alcoholic, aging film star Otto Kullberg (Henry Hübchen) proves unreliable in the eyes of the producer, so another actor Arno Runge (Markus Hering) is brought in on the set to shoot all of Kullberg’s scenes right after him in case the celebrity flakes out.  Using a similar formula to Grill Point (Halbe Treppe, 2002) or Summer in Berlin (Sommer vorm Balkon, 2005), Dresen latches onto the complicated interpersonal relationships between not two but five main characters (the two actors, two actresses and the director) and explores those relationships to their logical conclusion.  It does not matter what film material is used in the final cut – a question posed by the film and never answered – nor should the audience care.  There are also some special moments for us East German film scholars in there, as Dresen cites Solo Sunny in a piano riff played by none other than the DEFA composer Günther Fischer, and there are several moments where Runge is asked about being from the East – even though he’s one of the few main actors NOT originally from the East.  I felt fortunate to be one of four people in the theater to take it in, since the film isn’t that popular at Potsdamer Platz, apparently.

Read or Die OVAs (2001, dir. Kouji Masunari)

A recklessly paced set of three anime episodes if I ever saw one.  Read or Die is part James Bond-style thriller, part superhero film, and part sci-fi: A secret organization associated with the British Library is charged with retrieving a lost Beethoven score before it is used to destroy the world.  Fast-paced and drawing a great debt from the grandiose silly action foregrounded in my favorite anime of all, Giant Robo, the Read or Die OVAs are very cleverly staged and executed, with paper-manipulating hero The Paper performing dozens of neat superhero feats on her quest to save the world.  My major criticism is, as I said earlier, in the pacing.  The first two episodes establish a kind of pattern for what one thinks is a longer series, and then the plot is ramped into overdrive to resolve in the third episode.  I’m thinking it was budget-related…

City Breathing Children

September 18, 2009

Reality

“Sei bewegt / Sei belebt / Sei Berlin,” (roughly: “Be deeply moved, be active/bustling, be Berlin.”) were the words on a flag waving outside of the Rathaus Schöneberg as I waited for 2.5 hours in the stale, bureaucratic Bürgeramt.  Smug propaganda for a city that knows it has a lot of artists and movers-and-shakers all clustered together across a mess of parks, cafés and plazas.  Then again, I am continuously surprised at the cross-section of an active society that this city offers me.  In the United States, for example, people tend not to see children except in specific contexts:  accompanied by an adult while said adult is shopping, hanging out at the mall, and near a school.  Children are sheltered from random strangers and/or spirited around to various events in cars.  In Berlin, you can absolutely tell when school is or isn’t in session.  When it’s in-session, all the old people rush out to get their errands done, so one finds them everywhere on public transit and on the streets.  When it’s out, however, the children take over and everywhere (because there are schools every couple of blocks) there are groups of kids hanging out, playing soccer, goofing off and listening to music.  The schools are like lungs, the schools like breath – in and out, in and out comes the vibrant future of the City of Sand.

Today, a colleague of mine Anne and I met up by the Brandenburg Gate to attend a photo exhibit at the Akademie der Künste.  The exhibit was called “Übergangsgesellschaft: Porträts und Szenen 1980 bis 1990” and provided what was (to me) a nuanced panorama of people and their experiences in primarily East Berlin during the slow death of the East German State.  I found a giant three-picture series by Matthias Leupold entitled “Kino I-III” most captivating, in which a man is standing up in a movie theater otherwise filled with people wearing 3-D glasses and mesmerized by the glowing silver screen.  In a kind of mockery of the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” visual cliché, he is clamping his hands over his eyes in the first photo, silently screaming in the second and holding a gun to his own head in the third.  Other parts of the exhibit included arrays of faces on the wall, contrasting photographs of faces with the interior spaces of their former workplaces, comparative photos taken of mothers and sons in the nude near 1989 and again in 2005, and a 1989 photo-collage narrated with stories of post-war struggle by Gudrun Schulze-Eldowy.  There was also a room devoted to Thomas Heise’s work, a friend of the DEFA Film Library, but it was so cacophonous that few of the films could be appreciated on their own terms.  What was also stunning was the film series happening simultaneously at the Akademie, which included Andreas Dresen’s Jenseits von Klein-Wanzleben (which I subtitled as part of the Silent Country DVD), Helke Misselwitz’s Wer fürchtet sich vorm schwarzen Mann? (which was part of our 2005 MoMA Retrospective) and Jürgen Böttcher’s Die Mauer, which we’d been selling for a while.  6 years after my last residence in Germany, all these artists whom I’d never heard of then and whom I got in touch with in the interim period were now in center-stage.  20 years after the fall of the wall, the East Germans finally get a significant voice.  Must it always take 20 years?

In other news, I decided as a film student to splurge on a DVD player for our apartment, because I’ve got a pile of movies to go through and my laptop DVD players both don’t really work.  On my way home with the DVD player, a dude was just lying on the floor of the S-Bahn, mumbling something about needing money for an apartment.  Stellar urban citizen that I am, I immediately did the ethical thing and pretended not to see him, shuffling to my seat and minding my own business.  This actually turned out to be less malicious than the giggling high-school students at my end of the car, who took copious cell-phone pictures of the man, and the old German couple across the aisle, who seemed to think he was mentally retarded.  The situation became more interesting as a vile-smelling man with a cane arrived at our section of the train with a speech about living on the streets and needing some money, etc.  The man on the floor, who had been totally despondent, suddenly sat up and essentially told the man with the cane to piss off:  “Da gibt’s schon andere Wagen im Zug!”  This, of course, reminded me of Peachum the Beggar King’s speech in The Threepenny Opera about the various flavors of fake misery.  Ultimately, what I saw was a mild territory dispute.

Fantasy

Uncle Yanco (Agns Varda, 1967)

A short essay film on 35mm about Varda’s strange Greek-American uncle who speaks perfect French and lives as a painter on a houseboat outside of San Francisco with a bunch of hippies.  A terrific meditation on identity and where film as a medium is able to portray its asymptotic qualities.  The jarring cuts characteristic of the French New Wave show Yanco and people wearing buttons saying “Long Live Varda!” merge documentary with a kind of existentialist propaganda:  that individuals script their lives, but derive an essential power from this script, just as an independent filmmaker has raw control over his/her film.

Black Panthers (Agnés Varda, 1968)

This is a film we kept meaning to see in Barton’s “1968 and Film” course in Fall 2008, but I’m not sure we actually got around to seeing.  Again, it was fabulous to see it in 35mm and particularly illustrative of the film trends in 1968:  use of documentary material coupled with shock edits and decoupled sound and narrative.  Nevertheless, Varda plays it pretty straight with this documentary (unlike that of Uncle Yanco above), which politically situates her in the camp of Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael and the rest.  I’m sure she wouldn’t have disagreed then and now.

The Question of God (Catherine Tatge, 2004)

A 4-hour PBS documentary concerning the lives of Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis – representing atheism and deism respectively – of which I watched the first hour.  Basically, Walden Media had this as a Lewis side project while they worked their way through the dull cinema of The Lion, the Witch  and the Wardrobe (2005) – or perhaps they felt a twinge of guilt about creating the same – and used it to address the serious issues of spirituality at the core of Lewis’ work.  There are historical re-enactments of Lewis and Freud’s lives, actors reading their texts around, and a reality-television style group discussion hosted by eminent Harvard psychiatrist Armand Nicholi  filled with a bunch of white American academics and a token black filmmaker Louis Massiah, who helped create the infinitely better PBS documentary series on African Americans Eyes on the Prize, about basic (i.e. tired) questions of theology.  There are so many cues in the soundtrack and editing that heavy-handedly state “Hey, we’re having a deep conversation about meaning here!” that I grew steadily disillusioned with the ability of Tatge’s project to convince me of anything.  It comes up often enough that our spiritual lives are totally relational (I’d go so far as to say socially constructed), in that we project God through figures we know such as mother/father, as Freud projects his atheistic philosophy through the same.  I’d say that this film is totally relational as well, demonstrating the limits of white people’s understanding of religion, science and the critique thereof when they talk among themselves.