Reality

Imagine me in an auditorium listening to assorted bureaucrats tell us about our further studies at the HFF Konrad Wolf at Potsdam-Babelsberg, and then listening to professors introduce their specialties as well as high-quality past student films.  Well, that was pretty much my week from 9:00 – 5:00 with little in-between.  I feel bombarded with HFF film material, but I’ve also gathered many bits of interesting data about the school in the process.  There are 550 matriculated students total at the HFF, and our entering class constitutes 100 of those.  Of those who graduate, 80% will eventually work in television, and those 20% who work in film will likely never find full employment.  The revered, top programs at the HFF seem to be the Production Design people (who have a 100% employment rate after their studies and are largely responsible for those fantastic Babelsberg sets over the decades) and the Animation people, who produce amazing work in cell and computer animation.  In general, we have the latest technology in the media field and a vast institutional support system designed to train filmmakers to then go on the festival circuit with their films.  This school knows what it does, and takes a very materialist, German craftsman-like approach to do that thing very well.  We’ll see how we fare in media studies.

This week has been marked by a constant flow of a social life that had only existed in fits and starts earlier.  On Wednesday night, all the media studies folks from the year ahead of us invited us out for a round of drinks at the Griebnitzsee Bahnhof, where I got to meet the committee that’s organizing the SehSüchte Student Film Festival in April.  I’m very excited to be a part of that process in particular – I will be the editor of the English text publicity, such that I can keep the strange sounding sentences and the spelling of “Stop” with two “p”s to a minimum.  On Thursday night, I met up with Florian Leitner, an author and media studies scholar whom I met a year ago at the Film and History conference.  He took me to a very nice cocktail bar in Kreuzberg, and then to a Turkish diner where I had the best lentil soup I’ve ever tasted – an excellent evening!  Friday night saw us media studies people (we maneuver as a pack) heading out as a group of 11 to Simon-Dach-Strasse in Friedrichshain.  Let this be a lesson to all who read this:  never go out as a group of 11 to a busy party street on a cold night and expect to find a table indoors. An hour after we’d met up, we finally crammed ourselves around a back table in the smokiest bar I’d ever been in and then chatted about Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize and why Germans don’t marry (Political Science Answer:  the society more or less actively discourages it).  Two of the media studies people even got into one of those bar-none debates about religion, which was cute – it reminded me of college.  Then on Saturday I met with Beverley Weber – who’s soaking up the Berlin experience for a month while working on her book – and toured Kreuzberg’s Bergmannstr. and Oranienstr. to good effect.  I also visited Kira Thurman’s place in Prenzlauer Berg, which means I saw what amounted to a rainy block of that section of town.  I think I’ll return when the weather permits me to.

More short Berlin experiences and observations:

* I’ve now been offered drugs on the street twice:  once at the Kottbusser Tor U-Bahn station in Kreuzberg and once near the U-Bahn station at Eisenacherstr. in Schöneberg.  Both had next to zero subtlety about the offer, which made me also surmise that they were police anyway.

* Fireworks were set off yesterday night over what looked like Südkreuz – a few giant explosions illuminating the sky over the Yorckstrasse S-Bahn station as I stepped off the train.  Two high-school girls waited patiently until making sure they were over before exiting the platform.  God only knows what the event was.

* Some extremely intoxicated dude was singing the Atzen label’s hit song “Das geht ab” and started petting the heads of nearby bystanders.  I dodged it, but saw a fight nearly break out between someone whose head wasn’t open for petting.

(Note: I plan on having the next Peppersmoke Players chapter up tomorrow.  It’s looking to be at least 50% longer than the previous two, as I had trouble ending the scene.  So it goes!)

Fantasy

Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino, USA/Germany 2009)

As a German film historian, I felt like I needed to see this because A) it was shot at Babelsberg studios, B) it takes a controversial, B-movie-style tactic of Nazi representation for an A-list feature, C) it contains a great deal of spoken German as well as some of Germany’s big-name stars playing, uh, Nazis, D) there is apparently a surfeit of homage to German film history, which means that this will quickly amount to the “mainstream” perspective on my subject area in due course, E) I wind up seeing all Tarantino’s work eventually and F) so many people have recommended I see it.  As a keeper of the bizarre (and a bizarre keeper at that!), however, I always feel a little dirty after I see a Tarantino movie.  It’s as if he’s shining a blindly venerating light on the zones where we film historians scuttle around in the dark, basically demonstrating that he’s had a first-class film education through his lifetime and, well, doesn’t really know what to do with it now.  This is not to say I didn’t like the film; there were many moments of extended suspense and laudable sound/music design, etc.  But Tarantino is also a man with a distinctly amoral aesthetic and message to propagate, effectively mirroring the withering ambivalence that we media consumers exhibit these days toward all things.  This is a thermometer that tells us how and why we cheer for barbarism, but not a guidepost to point us to a culture that may not need to do so.

The movie itself is a work of immediate textual irony in that it stands against both its title and its paratexts (trailers, posters, etc.):  the Inglourious Basterds barely turn up in the film, and though it is a violent film, it is not what I would call “action-packed.”  Rather it is a relentless talkie – much like Deathproof (2007) – with endless dialogue scenes either ending in horrific violence or foreshadowing horrific violence to come.  It is a film effectively about language above all else, both in terms of language as a marker of social distinction (think of the scenes involving Landa as well as the deathtrap tavern) as well as a thin mask for some horrible emerging truth, which may be Tarantino’s remotely insightful statement on the Holocaust here.  More importantly for him, it’s also very much about the language of cinema, but as film geeks talk about it more than as auteurs like Godard, Lang, Ford, Hawks or anybody else would address it as such.  Tarantino’s strategy is to talk a scene to death and throw in some film references throughout to make it appear as though he’s given it a lot of thought.  I wouldn’t know:  rather than visually referencing the films of Riefenstahl or Pabst like, say, a memorable shot from one of his favorite films of theirs, two characters just talk about them.  Whereas some recent fringe feature films (Son of Rambow, The Fall, Hamlet 2) have opened up new critical vistas in my imagination and offered interpretative frameworks for said vistas, Inglourious Basterds seems to produce more banal answers than ask interesting questions … even though it is excessive and overwrought in precisely the way that his target audience knows and loves.  I wouldn’t mind elaborating my points given further discussion.

The White Ribbon (dir. Michael Haneke, Austria/Germany 2009)

One of the perks of being at the HFF is getting movies funneled into us for free.  Michael Haneke’s latest film The White Ribbon, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, is the second major treat (after seeing I Was 19 on 35mm) that I got the first week.  The premise:  A small town in Austria in 1913 is suddenly plagued by a series of mysterious accidents and deaths that expose the abusive, repressed underbelly of 19th Century continental European society.  Haneke draws directly on the spare visual tradition of black-and-white German-language novel-to-film adaptations, including Schlöndorff’s The Young Törless (1966),  Fassbinder’s Effi Briest (1974) and Haneke’s own The Rebellion (1993) to reveal an emotionally damaged, soulless community that offers few easy solutions to its problems.  An absolute masterpiece of framing, lighting, production design and direction of young actors.  People rave about this film for all kinds of reasons, but I stand firmly on the fact that it’s a 2.5 hour movie that you wouldn’t mind going on for another hour or two.

Fearless (dir. Ronny Yu, China 2006)

I had heard that this film is to date the top-selling non-English foreign film to circulate in the United States to date.  Jet Li returns as Huo Yuanjia (whom he played in Fist of Legend), the founder of his beloved wushu martial art form, and plays out a version of his biography heavily interpreted through the lens of Jet Li’s own silly kung fu oeuvre.  Though an intense battle in a darkened restaurant makes for an exciting action centerpiece, the film is on the whole quite sentimental and more than a little nationalistic (I’m thinking in a similar way to that which made the Bollywood musical Pardes unwatchable).  All that is good about the style and content here is effectively borrowed from Fist of Legend and Fong Si Yuk, but the film possesses neither the edgy choreography of the former or the tongue-in-cheek quality of the latter.  Thank goodness Jet Li’s made a few other movies since this one, so it would not be his last.

My Name is Nobody (dir. Tonino Valerii/Sergio Leone, Italian/French/West Germany 1973)

Possibly the most referential western of all time, My Name is Nobody came out during the last rays of sunset on the genre – Pauline Kael declared it “dead” a year later in ’74.   Leone and Valerii effectively shot a buddy comedy grafted onto a mournful iteration of a Leone and/or Peckinpah western.  The utterly weird combination of Terence Hill and Henry Fonda as our chief protagonists never really settles into any kind of groove, and there’s a shoot-out in a hall of mirrors that’s much more The Lady of Shanghai than “western” material.  I would still give it a B+ for effort though:  there are at least three jokes on the Nobody riff, including “Jack Beauregard – Nobody’s gun was faster.”  Ha!

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.