Category Archives: German

Dogs of Berlin (2018)

“A dog’s got no choice. A dog squats to take a shit and thinks it’s made a decision. The question is: the dog owner. Is it that much different for him? Do we really have a choice? Was everything decided at our birth?”

Dogs of Berlin is a dark, gritty ten part German TV series which opens (after a sex scene) with the discovery of a body in the East Berlin Marzahn district.  This is an area of massive apartment buildings originally designed as a model city but now a miserable ugly reminder of East German communism, a region riddled with crime and drugs.

Married Homicide detective Kurt Grimmer (Felix Kramer) happens to be visiting his girlfriend Bine (Anna Marie Lühar) when in a post coital moment, he notices something afoot in this troubled neighbourhood. His cop instincts kick in and he strolls over, carrying one of Bine’s horribly neglected children. He encounters two green cops who say that they’ve discovered a body. Grimmer tells the two patrol cops (including a very eager female cop) to wait there while he investigates. Grimmer identifies the body of a Turkish football player who plays for the German team. Since this is the night before a World Cup match, Grimmer realises that the death of Orkam Erdem, who received death threats, is fraught with potentially violent consequences. Neo Nazis loathe Erdem for playing on the German team, and some Turks feel that Erdem is betraying his own people–especially since he’s scheduled to play against Turkey the next day.

Here’s where the story begins to deepen:

Grimmer, who used to be a Neo Nazi, and still carries the tattoos, is a betting man. It’s an addiction, and he already owes big time. He begins to calculate that, with this knowledge of Erdem’s death, he could win and clear his debts if he can keep the knowledge under raps and bet against the demoralized German team….

What could go wrong?

As this addictive, edge-of-your-seat drama continues, we see a troubled panoramic view of life in this East German borough. Grimmer’s plan sounds good, but there are so many players with various agendas in this tale of ruthless gang violence, that his plan becomes increasingly difficult to carry out.

Add to the mix, Grimmer’s tightly-wound wife Paula (Katharina Schüttler) who runs the Grimmer middle class home, and owns a small shop full of knick-knacks. The shop runs at a loss, and Grimmer’s been picking up the tab with his betting winnings. Paula has no clue that Grimmer visits drug-addled, online sex worker Bine, a woman from his Neo-Nazi past.

Then there’s the fearsome Tarik-Amir clan run by the psychotic Hakim (Sinan Farhangmehr) from his heavily armed apartment compound which sits inside the no-go-zone. Hakim’s younger brother Kareem (Kais Setti) isn’t interested in the drug side of the clan’s operations, he’s into betting and forms an uneasy alliance with Kovac (Misel Maticevic) who runs the bookies and the betting shops.

Then there’s the Neo-Nazi clan Grimmer left: Grimmer’s brother Ulf (Sebastian Zimmler) and mother Eva (Katrin Saβ) are still very much part of the brotherhood. There’s one great scene when the Neo Nazis cheer a black player who scores a goal for the German team, and then they realise that hey this a black player, so they can’t cheer.

Finally, gay Turkish cop Erol Birkham (Fahri Yardim) is asked to team up with Grimmer to solve the murder of the Turkish football player. It’s an uneasy alliance with Grimmer’s prejudices and betting shenanigans spilling over into the case. There’s a large cast of secondary and tertiary characters too, but I won’t go into that for various reasons. And as for the title, dogs are woven brilliantly into this tale.

Dogs of Berlin is fantastic. Its dark portrayal of  a complex world of tangled loyalties, violent crime and racial hatred is riveting. Grimmer makes a fascinating antihero and you can’t help but hope he succeeds even though his behaviour is, at times, appalling. He leads a double life, moving between law enforcement and law breaking. Most comfortable with the dark seedy side of life,  he’s a user, and this is exemplified in his treatment of Bine. Here’s this drug addict who works as an online sex worker from her home; her children have to fend for themselves, and yet Grimmer doesn’t hesitate to take every penny this woman has, and she’s happy to give it–even though this decision has dire consequences. Over the course of the series, we see that Grimmer is a user of people, a black hole, and everyone in his orbit is sucked into his darkness.

Dogs of Berlin: Fantastic cinematography, impeccable acting, a relentlessly dark script in which everything is worse, far more corrupt and twisted than you think. What more can you ask for? The conclusion left the possibility of a second series, so lets hope we see it.

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Bad Banks (German series 2018)

I’m old enough to still have images of the old stodgy banker in my head: the stereotypical banker was a solid, pudgy late-middle-aged man, and yes while he may have had a secret mistress who dressed him in nappies and spanked him, this was a man as boring and as no-nonsense as the sternest headmaster. In other words, the Banker was a respectable, middle class, plodding figure who took no risks with your money.

Fast forward to the 21st century: banks make easy targets when it comes to institutional villainy. This is especially true following the collapse of the housing market and the ‘shocking’ revelations that banks  (and the shadow banking system) engaged in the subprime mortgage fiasco. But with all our disapproval of bank-shenanigans, the wonderfully engaging German TV series Bad Banks reveals unmined territory: the pressure, the dirt, the creative accounting behind the scenes of the Frankfurt based Deutsche Global Invest bank.

Ambitious, yet fragile Jana (Paula Beer) is humiliated and abruptly fired from Crédit International in Luxembourg when she speaks out of ‘place’ while working with arrogant, misogynistic Luc Jacoby (Marc Limpach). But luck seems to drop into Jana’s lap when the older Christelle Leblanc (Désirée Nosbusch) offers to help Jana land a new job with the dynamic Gabriel Fenger (Barry Atsma) the head of Investment banking at the rival bank: Deutsche Global Invest. Jana, talented, yet naive, who leaves her boyfriend and his young daughter behind and subsequently moves to Frankfurt, is thrilled by Leblanc’s female mentoring/apparent act of kindness, yet as the story unfolds it’s clear that Christelle expects to be repaid….

The aggressive, charismatic, intimidating Fenger demands the impossible from his ‘team,’ and consequently, the younger bankers lead stressed out lives even as they compete, manipulate and whore their way to the next lucrative deal. Working with Jana is Thao Hoang (Mai Duong Kieu) a young Asian woman who initially loathes Jana, and Adam (Albrecht Schuch), a seemingly quiet, young family man.

Fenger recognizes that Jana has talent but that talent is only as good as the next deal she lands. There’s also a sexual chemistry between Fenger and Jana, but she’s difficult to read. She’s a cipher–easy to underestimate because she shows weakness. This display, though, can occasionally be played for maximum benefit.

Scenes show just how far these young bankers will go to land a deal, and Jana manages to leapfrog obstacle after obstacle, sometimes with questionable ethics while Thao watches on the sidelines oozing malice. Jana, aware of Thao’s dislike, tries to offer friendship, but Thao initially predictably rejects Jana’s overtures. Jana, taking a page out of Christelle Leblanc’s book,  decides to approach Thao differently:

Women don’t work together or form groups. They also won’t go to brothels together. We’d rather pretend to hate each other, destroying each other.

This is a male-dominated world, men have the power and the money, while prostitutes and strippers are just chess pieces to land deals. That leaves the female bankers with a poor hand of cards unless, like Jana and Christelle, they can be smarter.

Lots of drama here–lots of scenes showing how people are driven by various impulses which, inevitably, veer out of control. This is a dynamic, riveting drama, packed with spectacular photography, and while I didn’t care for the A team feel at the end of episode 6, this paves the way for further malfeasance.

I loved this series for the way it explores our relationship with money:

A simple number is a wonderful thing. It can mean something different for everyone. Wealth. Status. Recognition. Addiction. Adrenaline. Greed. Life. Everyone has their own drive. Their own number that they keep wanting to increase, a number they’re prepared to do anything for. 

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The Blue Angel (1930)

“The films that von Sternberg made with me speak for themselves. There is nothing, and there will be nothing in the future, that could surpass them. Filmmakers are forever condemned to imitate them.” (Marlene Dietrich)

Based on the novel by Heinrich Mann, the film The Blue Angel (Die Blaue Engel) follows the obsession of a reclusive bachelor schoolteacher with a sexually liberated nightclub singer. The night club singer is, of course, Marlene Dietrich, and her unforgettable performance as Lola Lola catapulted her to international fame.

The Blue Angel is the story of Professor Rath, played by the portly Emil Jannings, who teaches at a boy’s school in a small town. While he is meticulous and stuffy in his personal and professional lives, he is also the object of ridicule. Scenes show him in the classroom where as a petty tyrant, the good students fear him and the poor students torment him at every opportunity. The class swot is appropriately named Angst (Rolf Muller). When Rath notices that some of the boys possess racy postcards of scantily dressed women, it’s Angst who tells Rath that the women on the postcards are from The Blue Angel–a popular hangout for the boys after hours. Rath decides to go to The Blue Angel and catch the boys himself, and of course, this is a very intriguing decision since Rath imagines that his jurisdiction spans the boys’ lives outside of the classroom. But there again, given Rath’s own evident surreptitious sexual interest in the postcard which depicts Lola Lola, perhaps moral intervention is just the excuse he tells himself in order to visit the nightclub after dark.

Once in the nightclub, the professor, who’s there ostensibly to catch the pupils drinking and ogling the dancers, falls under the spell of the fabulous Lola Lola. The Blue Angel is definitely a low-rent club, and the women who sing and entertain the crowds are a motley crew–one young woman just stands there and rotates her eyes in her version of ocular bellydancing. Lola Lola is clearly the star of the show, and for each of her songs she dons a different outfit–all of them managing to display her underwear. One costume is a huge farthingale. Not only is the skirt see-through (so we can see her bloomers), but it’s also backless–as the Professor discovers to his astonishment once he’s inside her dressing room.

The initial scenes with the Professor at The Blue Angel are comic, and much of the humour comes from the Professor’s reactions to Lola Lola. He very quickly falls under her spell, and once he’s lost his social position, he is gradually ground down by humiliation and eventually destroyed by the very sexuality that drew him into Lola Lola’s life.

Thanks to the advent of talkies, the career of thick-German accented Emil Jannings was on the wane when he cabled von Sternberg to join him in Berlin in order to make a film–the first sound film at UFA studios. Director Josef von Sternberg was engaged by Paramount and UFA for this joint German-American co production, and Jannings, who’d fought with von Sternberg on the film set before, argued for the employment of this director for what would be his first German speaking film. Jannings stated that “he had the choice of every director, even Lubitsch,” but that “his heart” was “set on” von Sternberg. In reply, the director said that Jannings was “a horrible affliction and a hazard to any aesthetic purpose.” Then he accepted, so Jannings set out to find a project that von Sternberg would accept and direct. In Berlin, Jannings came to von Sternberg with Heinrich Mann’s novel, Professor Unrat, and this is what the director says in his memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry:

I liked the idea of the first part of the novel, met Heinrich Mann and asked him if he had any objection to my changing the structure of his story, eliminating and adding whatever suited my purpose. I told him of my plan to call the film The Blue Angel, to change the name of the girl to Lola, and to alter the ending completely …. Mann had no objections; on the contrary, he told me that he wished he had thought of the suggested changes himself, and gave me full liberty to alter or add whatever I thought advisable.

Josef von Sternberg filmed two versions simultaneously–the English version and the German as the technique of film dubbing was not yet possible. Emil Jannings, who was paid  200,000,  stars as Professor Immanuel Rath, the strait-laced, sexually repressed bachelor professor. Marlene Dietrich was paid a mere 5,000 for her role.

With the leading man already in place, von Sternberg’s biggest task was to find the woman to take the role of Lola Lola, a cheap nightclub singer who is the object of the professor’s obsessive desire and the woman who ultimately leads the professor to his doom. Jannings wanted Lucie Mannheim or Trude Hesterberg for the role, but after seeing Dietrich perform in a play (he’d already passed over her photograph,) von Sternberg knew that he’d found his dark angel– “here was the face I had sought.” 

Moreover, there was something else I had not sought, something told me that my search was over. She leaned against the wings with a cold disdain for the buffoonery, in sharp contrast to the effervescence of the others, who had been informed that I was to be treated to a sample of the greatness of the German stage. She had heard that I was in the audience, but as she did not consider herself involved, she was indifferent to my presence.

Von Sternberg also noted Dietrich’s “impressive poise,” and also that she conducted herself with a remarkable “bovine listlessness” with eyes “completely veiled.” For von Sternberg, she was perfect.  Jannings and producer Pommer were not impressed, but von Sternberg pushed for a screen test, and she got the part. During the filming, von Sternberg and Dietrich began an affair.   

Take a look of Dietrich’s first rendition of Falling in Love Again, the song that bookends her relationship with the Professor and then compare it to the second which appears almost at the end of the film. In the first rendition, even though the song is sung with a certain amount of indifference, Lola Lola effectively woos the Professor, and in the second rendition, she rejects him with defiance, triumph and an acknowledgment of her nature. Lola Lola appears to have undergone a transformation between the two songs or is it Dietrich we see transformed?

While the film appears to have a simple structure, it’s full of repetition and doubling. The Professor’s world of order is in complete contrast to Lola’s world of make-believe and chaos. The Professor frequently engages with the clown (the clown was entirely von Sternberg’s invention), but the relationship with the Professor and the clown consists of them both staring at each other–as if they are trying to fit this alien being into some sort of frame of reference. Yet the way they stare at each other is also reminiscent of a person staring at a reflection in the mirror–and this is, of course, a foreshadowing of the Professor’s tragic fate.

It’s clear that The Blue Angel, light on dialogue is just one short step from the silent era, and perhaps this is why the English version is a curiosity. The English spoken is heavily accented, sometimes unintelligible, and clearly this is a German film–the word “achtung,” for example, appears from the pupils when they hear Professor Rath approaching. Kino released a splendid dual DVD release which includes both the English and the German versions and Dietrich’s screen test. Although the German version is superior, it’s still well worth watching both versions. During the Professor’s first visit to The Blue Angel, he spends time in Lola Lola’s dressing room, and as she leaves to go onstage to sing, she stands in the doorway of her dressing room, and somewhat coarsely readjusts her stockings, garter and underwear. This small, and yet deliciously telling detail is absent from the English-speaking version.  

The Blue Angel is an iconic, remarkable film. As the first talking picture made at UFA studios, it has its historic value of course, but it also is a product of the marvels and talent of Weimar Germany–soon to be washed away.  Kurt Gerron, who plays Kiepert, the magician, was forced by the Nazis to direct a propaganda film extolling the kindness of the Nazis to the Jews. After making the film, he and his wife were gassed in a concentration camp. Karl Huszar-Puffy who plays the innkeeper was trying to travel to Hollywood and, according to von Sternberg’s autobiography, he was removed from a ship and interned in a concentration camp in Kazakhstan by the Russians where he starved to death. Emil Jannings who played the Professor went on to star in a number of Nazi propaganda films, and he was named as Artist of the State by Joseph Goebbels in 1941. In contrast, Marlene Dietrich took a different path entirely. She opted for American citizenship and rejected Goebbels’ attempts to woo her back to Berlin with an offer of 50,000 pounds tax-free to return to Germany to make one film.

The Blue Angel is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s foreign film festival.


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Henri of Navarre (2010)

First, thanks to for a blog post about the film Henri of Navarre (Henri IV), and secondly, thanks for holding a contest for a DVD giveaway. I won, received the film, and here I am writing a review of Henri of Navarre. This is a wonderful, engaging, and throughly entertaining biopic with just the right balance of history and intrigue, and for French or historical drama film buffs, Henri of Navarre comes highly recommended.

Since this is a biopic of Henri of Navarre, I don’t think I’m giving away too much to say that the film spans Henri’s entire life–from his birth to his death, the highlights, and with battle scenes included, no areas of that life appeared to be stinted. This is, by the way, a German film from director Jo Baier. The film runs to around 2 1/2 hours.

The film begins in 1561 with scenes of a battlefield replete with broken scattered bodies. Most of these very well constructed battle scenes are tinged with a silvery light as if its characters are already assigned to the annals of history. The film’s initial scenes include enough political overture that even those unfamiliar with the time will grasp the political situation. The French court is dominated by catholics with protestants in the minority. France is ruled by the notorious Catherine de Medici (Hannelore Hoger), the widow of Henry II, and there’s a thorn in her side–the small Huguenot dominated kingdom of Navarre which is ruled by the steely Jeanne (Marta Calvo). Jeanne’s son is Henri de Bourbon (Julien Boisselier) destined, of course, to merge both kingdoms through a marriage of bloody convenience.

Early scenes reveal Henri’s childhood under the tutelage of Admiral Coligny, and as Henri grows the religious wars continue. Catherine de Medici eventually sues for peace through an alliance between Henri of Navarre and her tempestuous daughter, Margot (Armelle Deutsch). For anyone who’s seen the film Queen Margot, you will know that Margot did not go willingly to the marriage bed.

Henri’s arrival in Paris in 1572 heralds the beginning of even more action as we see Henri the diplomatic statesman trying to stay alive long enough to escape. I’ve seen many depictions of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre–an event that left 30,000 Huguenots slaughtered in the streets of Paris, but this depiction surpasses all others. Scenes emphasize chaos mixed with religious fanaticism as catholics slaughter Huguenots and leave the streets piled with bodies and streaming with blood.

The Medicis are depicted as a despotic, maniacal lot–there’s the indomitable, bitter Catherine and her three sons–the weak and cowardly Charles IX (Ulrich Noethen), kinky Henry (Devid Striesow) , and Francis the Duke of Anjou (Adam Markiewicz). In contrast to the sadistic despotism and cruelty of the Medicis, Henri is seen as a rational, intelligent monarch ready to accept a pragmatic approach to religion (“Paris is worth a mass“), and although this won him no friends amongst the catholic fanatics, Henri appears an enlightened monarch next to the medievalism of the Medicis.

For fans of French history, the highly entertaining Henri of Navarre is a must-see spectacle. The costumes are sumptuous, the sets are spectacular, and the action riveting. What more do you want?

(Based on the book by Heinrich Mann)


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The State I Am In (2000)

“You can’t love someone and live in hiding.”

The State I Am In (Der Innere Sicherheit), a 2000 film from German director Christian Petzold is another title to add to the coterie of tales surrounding the Red Army Faction. Unfortunately, The Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008) will probably go down in the re-written annals of history as the film to watch, and that will ultimately give the general public its ‘knowledge’ about this significant urban terrorist group. The Baader Meinhof Komplex is wildly entertaining in a Bonnie and Clyde sort of way, but it’s grating and its highly controversial presentation and preposterous ending is likely to be swallowed whole and undigested by its audience.

And this brings me back to The State I Am In. It’s a much quieter film and for the microscopic examination of its characters, it takes just a tiny slice of Red Army Faction history. It’s possible to watch the film and miss the Red Army Faction connection altogether as The State I Am In isn’t a thriller, full of shoot-’em up chase scenes. Instead The State I Am In follows fugitive members of the RAF who are discovering that as the years pass, their survival is becoming more and more difficult.

Clara (Barbara Auer) and Hans (Richy Muller) have been on the run for about 15 years. They lead a nomadic existence laced with paranoia. They have a child together named Jeanne (Julia Hummer)–a teenager who’s getting more than a bit fed up with her life. She has no friends, doesn’t attend school, and any strangers she strikes up a conversation with are immediately suspect. When the film begins, an edge of desperation has crept into their fugitive lives, and there’s the sense that they are collectively reaching the end of the line. Clara, Hans and Jeanne are in Portugal, but they’re hardly on holiday. Someone has arranged to meet them but he doesn’t show, and while Clara and Hans try to digest and interpret that information, they are robbed of the money they have left. This robbery heralds a chain of events that sets them loose on a trek back to Germany.

Red Army Faction member Bommi Baumann described living on the run in his excellent memoir How It All Began: A Personal Account of a West German Urban Guerilla, and he explains how fugitives need people living legitimate lives willing to offer support. As the state net closes around Clara, Hans, and Jeanne, this idea came to mind as I watched The State I Am In. The friends that Clara and Hans used to rely on have mostly moved on to the sort of bourgeois lives they fought against. Some of their old friends are still trustworthy–take Klaus (Gunther Maria Halmer) for example, whose fondness for Clara leads him to take chances.

Interestingly, the film’s focus is not on Clara and Hans but Jeanne. While her parents have chosen the path they’ve taken, Jeanne has no say whatsoever in her life. This was probably fine when she was 5, but now Jeanne has a mind of her own, and more than anything else she would like to be ‘normal’ and have friends. There’s one scene when Clara and Hans visit a now affluent old friend they intend to pressure for money, and once in the house, Jeanne, follows the sound of an attractive song upstairs where she discovers a young girl, Paulina (Katharina Schuttler) about her own age. Jeanne bums a cigarette and the two girls share a moment over the music. Meanwhile the visit downstairs is going badly, and Jeanne, who’s made a tentative new friend, is wrenched away and soon back fleeing for her life once again.

Things really go wrong however when Jeanne meets a young German man, Heinrich (Bilge Bingul), and her loyalties and desires are ripped apart. Heinrich was no doubt just a toddler when the Red Army Faction were active, and Heinrich, although in many ways underprivileged and disenfranchised connects with the image of Brian Wilson while he leads a simple, hard-working life. He’s attracted to Jeanne because he senses she’s so different. And he’s right, of course; he just has no idea how different.

The film’s very best scenes depict Jeanne’s interactions with her parents. Clara, who’s probably the hardest of the group, spends time educating Jeanne, but most of the education is pitched towards survival. There’s one great scene when Jeanne goes on a shoplifting spree and Clara’s rage is unleashed. Contrary to the typical parental stance, Clara’s rage is at the stupidity of Jeanne’s actions since her thefts could cause them to be caught.

Whereas The Baader Meinhof Komplex concentrates on the action while it tries to simplify, homogenize and recuperate (in the Situationist sense) the actions of its members, The State I Am In concentrates on the hellish life of the fugitive. While The Baader Meinhof Komplex shows the RAF sporting naked in the sun and communal naked bathing and fails to mention the political theory behind this MARXIST group, The State I Am In avoids specifying exactly what Clara and Hans’s past actions were and instead concentrates on showing the toll of living as a paranoid fugitive for 15 years. While Clara and Hans have accepted the yoke of their decisions, the film poses the question: do they have the right to inflict those moral choices on their daughter? And naturally this leads to the argument that revolutionaries have no business having children.

The State I Am In will not be so widely watched a  film as the glitzy well-publicized Baader Meinhof Komplex extravaganza. And that’s a shame.

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A Woman in Berlin (2008)

“Berlin is one big whorehouse.”

woman in berlinA Woman in Berlin (Anonyma-Eine Frau in Berlin) is based on the anonymous diaries of a young German woman. The nameless woman (who’s given the name Anonyma and is played by the incredible German actress Nina Hoss) is a journalist. The book,  published in Germany in the 50s, was not well-received and its author was accused of dishonouring German women. After her death, the book was republished and it became a bestseller. Then came this film version from director Max Farberbock.

The story takes place over a period of about 8 weeks and is set entirely in Berlin. When the film begins, it’s April 26th, 1945, and Berlin is a bombed out shell. The opening scene shows civilians picking their way over debris as they frantically try to find shelter from the bullets and constant explosions. A group of civilians huddle in an underground shelter. They are mainly women and children with a few older men amongst them.

Then as time passes, the explosions cease and an ominous silence begins. The silence is broken with the sounds of heavy equipment passing on the road above. The Red Army has arrived, and it’s just a matter of time before the German civilians are discovered hiding.

At first, the relations between the Soviet Red Army soldiers and the starving German civilians are very tentative. The Soviets encourage the women to step outside of their shelter and get food. By this time, a huge wagon piled full of potatoes sits out on a street, and within a little while, some of the women emerge to seek food. But as victory for the Russians sinks in, the German women are raped repeatedly. Age and illness are no defense. Married women are raped in front of their husbands.

After the first rapes take place, the women reassemble themselves and carry on as best they can. They return to their apartments in a vast building, and try to survive. Anonyma (the anonymous woman and the author of the diaries) emerges as a strong leader almost immediately, and since she speaks Russian, she has the advantage. Seeking out the commanding officer, Major Andreij Rybkin (Yevgeni Sidikhin), she asks him to reign in his men, protect the civilian women, and impose discipline. His reply: “all my men are healthy.”

The rapes continue, and the film creates an effective atmosphere of tension without loading the film with hard-to-watch details. The rapes are mainly depicted as men arriving drunk and chasing the women down until they manage to grab one. A few grunts later, it’s over.

As the weeks continue, Hitler’s suicide is announced, and any illusion that the Germans may have about their Fuehrer coming to their rescue is dashed. Anonyma sinks into the pace of the new life–with frequent rapes at all hours, she devises a plan for survival. Instead of being raped by multiple soldiers, she intends to accept just one and in so doing gain a protector. Just how she manages this is the substance of this riveting film.

In other less capable hands, this film could be a disaster. Too much sentimentality, and we’d have a film too unbearably painful to watch. Instead, A Woman in Berlin is delivered without a modicum of sentimentality, and given the film’s subject matter, the total absence of sentimentality is an incredible feat. Perhaps this is due to the author’s journalistic roots, but it’s the unsentimental treatment of the subject matter that makes the film so watchable and intense.

An early scene in the film establishes that Anonyma was a fascist and a follower of Hitler. She’s seen in better days via flashback in evening dress, whooping it up, toasting Hitler and the war, and she admits in the voiceover that she believed in her country’s “destiny” and that anyone who doubted was a “weakling.” Her complicity in the political madness that led to the deaths of millions taints her as a character, and while she’s not a combatant, she is guilty of endorsing and supporting Hitler’s destructive regime. In this instance, however, her fascist beliefs give her character depth and make her less sympathetic but more interesting. Perhaps this is best seen in the scenes when her fellow Germans whoop it up with the Russians, and while others become obsequious (as they stuff nazi books into incinerators), Anonyma maintains a sort of implacable grimy dignity amidst the squalor. Part of her dignity can be explained by her sheer toughness. She refuses to allow the acts of rape to conquer anything beyond her physical body.

One of the film’s subtlest and best handled themes is the treatment of civilians in wartime. While the film’s main focus is on the German civilians left in Berlin, the Soviet soldiers all have horrible, hair-raising stories to tell about the actions of the invading German army in Russia. In one understated scene Anonyoma translates to her fellow German women who find it difficult to believe that their countrymen were capable of such meaningless violence towards civilians.  Anonyma’s horror as she translates the tale  is apparent through her hesitation to even speak the words, and her supressed emotion is also just barely visible in her slight, but tightly controlled tremors. At the end of the translation, she asks the Soviet soldier if his story is hearsay or if he actually witnessed these incidents. He replied that he saw them, and the camera catches Anonyma’s expression as she silently acknowledges that the soldier’s stories are true.

Given the experiences of these Soviet soldiers, the message seems to be that what happens to the Berliners is mild in comparison. In spite of the fact that the Soviet soldiers are seen on frequent rampages for German women to rape, they are not depicted as monsters–with a couple of exceptions, their behaviour is seen partly as a release from tension and also partly as a result of drinking. One young soldier, for example, refuses to leave the apartment of a German family, even though the woman repeatedly tells him that she has a husband and that he must leave. The soldier’s sustained presence hints at a desire to stay with a family more than anything else. But even though relationships are established between the Berliners and the Soviets, the film never mistakes these relationships as anything other than unhealthy. While the Berliners may host raucous parties for the Soviets, the tension is always apparent just underneath the surface, and we can’t fool ourselves for a moment that the Germans can reign in the Soviets or refuse them anything.

The film falls apart towards the end, but Hoss’s strong portrayal manages to bind the film around her. The Soviets may leave but she will remain and survive, and this is evidenced by her solitary forays into the rubble of Berlin while soldiers stare or leer at her as she continues on her path…alone.

It’s a bit of a coincidence that I watched A Woman in Berlin so soon after watching I Was Nineteen–a film based on the experiences of the director–who as a 19-year-old of German extract was part of the Red Army invading force to enter Berlin. In one scene in I Was Nineteen, the main character Gregor meets a young German girl in Berlin who begs for his protection. He declines and leaves the girl to her fate, and although the film doesn’t explore what happens to the girl, I was reminded of her terror as I watched A Woman in Berlin.

For anyone interested in watching more of Nina Hoss, I recommend Jerichow and A Girl Called Rosemarie. On a final note, A Woman in Berlin concludes with Esenin’s Suicide Poem set to music:

“Goodbye my friend, goodbye.

My dear one, you are in my heart.  

Our predestined parting promises a future meeting.  

Goodbye, my friend, without hand or word, No grief and no sad face,–

In  this life there’s nothing new in dying,

But in living, of course, is nothing new either.”  

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Jerichow (2008)

“You can’t love if you don’t have money.”

There are some situations you would never choose to become involved with, but desperation leads you there.

jerichowThe German film Jerichow begins with Thomas (Benno Furmann) attending his mother’s funeral. He has a past, an unknown history, but now he is back at the humble little house owned by his recently deceased mother. He’s just left her funeral when he’s visited by two men from his past. Exactly what happened and what Thomas’s relationship is to these men isn’t clear, but it is obvious that there’s some sort of criminal activity involved, and that Thomas has stolen some money.

The visit leaves Thomas without the little purloined nest egg he’d intended to use to repair his mother’s dilapidated house. With no job, and no money, this dishonorably discharged soldier turns to the state for help getting a job. The next thing you know, Thomas is part of a cucumber harvesting crew, performing extremely difficult work–no doubt for a pittance.

Thomas’s luck seems to be improving when he meets Ali (Hilmi Sozer), the chubby, middle aged Turk who owns a chain of snack bars sprinkled throughout the region. But that’s not the only thing Ali owns–he also has a gorgeous country home, and a blonde German wife, Laura (Nina Hoss). After Thomas does Ali a favour, Ali offers Thomas a job as his driver, and Thomas accepts.

With the three main characters in place, the film then creates an effective love triangle. Laura is obviously sick and tired of her husband, and Ali is busy spying on Laura and testing her loyalties. Surely no one in their right minds would see Laura as anything other than ‘off limits,’ but Thomas doesn’t seem to care, and soon, Laura and Thomas are groping each other every chance they get.

It’s impossible to watch Jerichow (Jerichow is the name of Thomas’s home town, by the way) without being aware that the plot is a reworking of James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, made into a film first in 1946 and remade in 1981.

One of the biggest differences between the 1946 American film version and this German retelling of the tale is that the character of Ali is far more interesting–even if he is more unpleasant. As Thomas drives Ali from snack bar to snack bar, Ali anticipates the actions of some of his managers. He expects to be cheated, and he’s not disappointed when people do exactly what he expects. Similarly, he expects Laura to sneak around and cheat on him too, and of course this makes the way he dangles Laura in front of Thomas rather intriguing.

Thomas and Laura don’t struggle with the morality of the situation. To them, it’s a black and white situation which is determined by cold cash. Jerichow also tackles the immigrant perspective, and here even though Ali is a wealthy man, he can’t wait to retire back in Turkey–a place he still considers home even though he only returns periodically. There’s a sense that this is the new Germany–with hunky Thomas disenfranchised after a bout with the army and Laura, bought and paid for by the only man interested enough to afford her price tag.

All three of the main characters are well cast: Benno Furman with his economy of movement and speech, Nina Hoss as the burned out wife who chokes on her subservient role, and Ali, a man who’s far deeper than he appears to be. From director Christian Petzold.

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I Was Nineteen (1968)

“Perhaps you underestimate the Nazi movement’s irresistibility. It was a continuation of German history. You quoted Kant, but you misunderstood him. The categorical imperative to obey any order an authority gives us was a trait of this people before Hitler. The need to fulfill our duties. This was just an escalation. An artificially induced frenzy of obedience. The result of long-suffered degradation. An explosion of sadism. A phenomenon. We have been destroyed like no other race.”

I came across the title I Was Nineteen (Ich War Neunzehn) on a list of the ‘100 best German films ever.’ Some of the films are sadly no longer available, but I noticed that both A Girl Called Rosemarie and The Kaiser’s Lackey made the list, and since those were both great films, it seemed possible that  I Was Nineteen would be something special too.

It was….

I was nineteenI Was Nineteen is based on the memoirs of East German film director Konrad Wolf. Wolf was a lieutenant in the Red Army during WWII, and for a short period, he was the commander of Bernau in the spring of 1945.

The protagonist of I was Nineteen is 19-year-old Gregor Hecker (Jaecki Schwarz) who arrives on the outskirts of Berlin as a member of the Red Army advance scouting team. Part of Gregor’s job is to man the megaphone and tell the German soldiers that the war is over, they’ve lost, and they should surrender. Gregor is a uniquely valuable member of the team as he’s a product of a German parents who moved to the U.S.S.R and he can speak fluent German.

Based on Wolf’s diaries, the film is largely episodic and lacks a smooth narrative. Gregor is seen as a reflective mirror of the drama, and some of his recorded experiences remain more powerful than others. Some of the Germans, once they realise that Gregor is a ‘fellow’ German, imagine that this means he will be kinder and that they will receive different treatment at his hands. But Gregor doesn’t identify with Germany, its people or its lost cause in the least. He’s appalled by the actions of the Third Reich, and in one of the segments, he’s in the home of a German who intellectualizes the mass slaughter. Gregor isn’t even interested, and if anything, his slightly impatient expression seems to question why they even allow the man to spout his theories. Another of the very first segments depicts a young German girl in Bernau, obviously traumatized by recent incidents. The town is practically deserted, and the girl has drifted to Bernau from elsewhere. Terrified by the presence of the Red Army, she begs Gregor for protection in the hostile presence of a female Red Army soldier. There’s no sentimentality–even though for one moment, the film seems about to lean in that direction.

In another episode, Gregor arrives at a deserted concentration camp. He and his fellow Red Army soldiers anticipate liberating prisoners, but they have arrived too late. Archival footage of the gas chambers and the procedures used are grafted onto the film for a grim authenticity.

At another point in the film, Gregor is a translator for the Red Army officer who tries to persuade the German officers at Spandau to surrender. This is perhaps the most tense and arguably the most interesting segment of the film. The collapse of the Third Reich is evident at this point–it’s just that some people are admitting it and others are still delusional while the division between the Wehrmacht and the Nazi officers widens.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film’s unusual persepective is Gregor’s reaction to the German officers. While some of the Germans seem perplexed by Gregor’s role, Gregor views the officers as “blue-blooded bastards” who led the country into the path of madness. In spite of the fact that the war is ‘over,’ the film shows that this was an extraordinarily sensitive and dangerous time with some Germans refusing to accept defeat and surrender, while the ‘common’ foot soldier just wanted to go home. The film’s scenes show the destruction of the German army from within as some Germans refuse to surrender and try to kill those who hand over their weapons. 

I Was Nineteen is absolutely fascinating–in spite of its lack of momentum and with tension ebbing and flowing.  A May Day celebration, for example, interrupts the dangerous penetration of Germany, and makes the audience relax–much too early as it turns out. The fate of the German soldiers rounded up by Gregor and his fellow Red Army soldiers is not apparent, but their destination is the U.S.S.R, and many would never return….

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A Virus Has No Morals (1986)

“Mother, what are you doing here? You were always a bit eccentric, but I didn’t realise that you were so perverse.”

A son meets his mother in a public toilet. Nurses on the graveyard shift throw the dice to see which AIDS patient will die next. A virologist uses dildos to demonstrate the effects of AIDS. This all happens in A Virus Has No Morals (AKA Ein Virus Kennt Keine Moral), Rosa von Praunheim’s satire about AIDS. A satire about AIDS!!!! Yes, you read that correctly. There are probably only a handful of directors who could pull this off successfully (John Waters leaps to mind). Rosa von Praunheim is a renegade German director who’s made a number of documentaries about AIDS, and his gay activism brought him death threats in his native Germany. Only someone with von Praunheim’s reputation as a fierce, unrelenting defender of gay rights could make this film and get away with it.

As its title suggests, A Virus Has No Morals argues that AIDS does not discriminate when it comes to infection (i.e. it’s not sent by some deity as a punishment). But when the film begins, we see several moral authorities who have various twisted beliefs about AIDS. The film’s moral authorities include: virologist, Dr. Blood, a therapist (Regina Rudnick) who believes that AIDS is psychosomatic, and a reporter (Eva Kurz) for the sleazy tabloid Purple Pages. Of course, their smug attitudes grant them a certain comfort. After all, if they are fine, upstanding, moral people, then they can’t have anything to worry about….

On the other side of the fence, in the face of infection, there are many who still think they are invulnerable–including a sauna owner (played by von Praunheim). He sees AIDS as detrimental to business, and he tries to dream up social events to encourage business.

By showing the entire spectrum of those involved one way or another with AIDS, von Praunheim illustrates the social dynamic of the disease. There are those who make money off of AIDS by sensationalizing it (the Purple Pagesreporter), and those who promise ‘cures’ (the therapist). Outraged by the “fascist medical regime,” a caring nurse forms a revolutionary group called AIDS (Angry, Sick, and Impotent Direct Action). Meanwhile as paranoia runs unchecked in the country, the Minister of Health draws up plans to start shipping AIDS patients to “ideal isolation” on an island for Quarantine. here AIDS patients will exist in a “post modern viral infection park,” with its own condom factory.

A Virus Has No Morals isn’t von Praunheim’s best film (my favourites are Neurosia and Anita: Dances of Vice), but it is typical von Praunheim fare–very colourful outrageous, and complete with a savage, riotous wit. Somehow, when I watch his films, I have the sensation that the situation is barely under control, but at the same time, it’s obvious that von Praunheim is having a great time making his films. Take for example, the sequences of von Praunheim’s version of Masque of the Red Death, scenes that are interjected into the middle of the film. It’s all von Praunheim madness and marvellous mayhem, and if you are a von Praunheim fan, you won’t mind a bit.

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The Kaiser’s Lackey (1951)

 “If your political dilettantism continues, there will be an explosion.”

Director Wolfgang Staudte’s marvelously understated satire, The Kaiser’s Lackey, a 1951 film, was recently released on DVD. Set mainly in the 1890s, the film is based on Heinrich Mann’s novel Der Untertan. Originally banned in Germany, The Kaiser’s Lackey is now considered one of the 100 greatest German films ever made.

kaiserThe film’s protagonist Diederich Hebbling is hardly a hero; as a boy Diederich is terrified of everything. From his father’s impassioned, tyrannical rants to his mother’s ghastly tales of what happens to children, little Diederich learns to never take chances, and dog-like he follows the rules. The very first glimmer of Diederich’s character appears in an early classroom scene when he curries a teacher’s favour by tattling on a fellow student.

By the time Diederich (Werner Peters) is an adult and attends university, his character is set. Attracted to Agnes Gopel (Sabine Thalbach), he scurries away when threatened by a rival, and turning from the challenges of love, instead he becomes enthralled with the Neo-Teutons–a group that gives a sense of identity and kinship and that ultimately shapes his notions of German superiority and imperialism. Dabbling with contrived duels to gain obligatory, status scars, he “experienced a sort of suicidal élan,” and gradually Diederich’s inclusion in the Neo-Teutons becomes a substitution for personality. He evades military service by pulling strings, and lacking imagination, spontaneity, and individualism, Diederich becomes the perfect material for a politician. Eventually, with the confidence and comfort gained from extensive drinking rituals and the superficial camaraderie of the Neo-Teutons, he despoils Agnes and then casts her aside due to his notions of ‘unblemished’ womanhood.

When Diederich inherits his father’s paper factory, he returns home to Netzig and becomes a petty tyrant. Rabidly anti-Semitic, he prides himself on his patriotism and harsh treatment of his workers. In unsettled political times, Diederich learns to curry favour from the socially superior bombastic governor, but he also gains cooperation from the oppositional Social Democrats by bribing one of their leaders. Some of the scenes involving the governor and his dog are hilarious. Diederich, who’s beneath the governor’s dog on the totem pole of power, must suffer various indignities without complaint in order to gain access to the governor’s presence, patronage, and privileged inner circle. And like the good little underling he is, Diederich knows better than to complain when the dog treats him like some sort of squeaky toy.

Eventually elected to the town council after gaining notoriety through a preposterous trial, Diederich’s pomposity and vanity have no limits. Courtship to a local heiress whose inheritance and bovine nature suit Diederich’s ambitions results in marriage and a honeymoon. Once Diederich learns that the Kaiser is expected in Rome, he diverts his honeymoon plans, and abandoning his wife temporarily in the street he succeeds in gaining a glimpse of his idol. Running alongside the Kaiser’s carriage like a faithful dog, Diederich is the last person to realize how insufferable and ridiculous he is.

The film, however, makes it perfectly clear that even though Diederich is a buffoon, and a cretinous underling, as an autocrat shaped by the “corps, the army and the Imperialistic spirit” he’s a destructive force, and this is established in the film’s final prophetic scene. Diederich gives a thundering patriotic speech given at the unveiling of the town’s statute of the Kaiser, and with a captive audience, he becomes carried away–even ignoring the governor’s order to stop. As Diederich’s speech becomes more impassioned, the weather turns sour and his speech’s militaristic, nationalistic tone parallels the gathering storm. Admonishing the crowd that the nation’s greatness is “forged on the battlefield,” Diederich finishes his speech ignoring the collateral damage occurring around him. This brilliant symbolism presages Germany’s coming destruction and a barking, insane and obsessed fuehrer whose notions of racial purity, militaristic traditions, and German imperialism plunged the world into war.

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