“Intelligence would take the bloom off your carnality.”
On the surface, Hermann Hermann, a well-to-do chocolate factory owner, appears to lead an envious life. He lives in a beautiful Berlin apartment, drives around in a chauffeur driven car, dresses immaculately and expensively, and tastes chocolate samples all day long. However, the reality of the situation shows that the factory is close to bankruptcy, and his vulgar wife, Lydia (Andrea Ferreol), is chronically unfaithful to Hermann with her appalling cousin (Volker Spengler), a talentless artist who bleeds Hermann for money every chance he gets. Hermann appears to cope with his depressing life, but when he meets a total stranger who resembles Freud (in reality, he’s an insurance salesman), Hermann confides an interest in “disassociation” (“the man who stands outside himself”) and even muses whether or not he’ll write a book “or two” on the subject. The fact that Hermann considers writing two books is crucial to his mental state, for Hermann has created an alter ego. While Hermann is engaged in various activities, his voyeuristic alter ego observes, so Hermann becomes the audience for his own life. As Hermann descends into madness, his life spirals out of control. Ironically, he imagines he has control of his life by scripting it a certain way. He’s coped for years by scripting his marriage as happy, and ignoring his wife’s blatant affair, and now he imagines he can think his life into a new creation. Hermann devises a plan to defraud his insurance company by murdering a destitute man named Felix (Klaus Lowitsch). Hermann imagines that Felix could be his identical twin–when in reality the two men do not look alike at all.
The story of Hermann’s descent into madness is juxtaposed against the rise of National Socialism in Germany of the 1930s. Hermann witnesses the increase of brown shirts, swastikas, and the flagrant persecution of the Jews. Hermann is obviously disturbed by these events, and his madness and denial deepens to tragic levels.
Despair (Eine Reise ins Licht) is a lesser known Fassbinder film based on a novel by Nabokov (hence the prevalent theme of identity). The film is, oddly enough, in English–although some of the actors have thick, German accents. Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay for the film, and the incredibly talented Dirk Bogarde stars as Hermann Hermann, the beleaguered owner of a Berlin chocolate factory. Despair is a must-see for Fassbinder fans. Despair is not as emotionally powerful as The Marriage of Maria Braun or The Stationmaster’s Wife, but it’s an excellent study of madness that perhaps only Dirk Bogarde and Fassbinder can deliver. Fassbinder aficionados will notice the director’s ever-present death-obsession in this brilliant study of one man’s decline. Fassbinder, Nabokov, Bogarde, and Stoppard: what an incredible combination….
“Throwing you into the arms of Communism.”
Claude Chabrol’s documentary, The Eye of Vichy focuses on the French government of Marshal Petain. After the collapse of the French government in 1940, Petain took the lead, and with the war between the Germans and the French essentially over, Petain’s government began collaborating with the Germans. The documentary shows that under the boot of the occupying force, and with Petain’s direction, France became–essentially–an ally of Germany. The documentary consists of newsreel and footage of the times, and gives a strong sense of the level of propaganda coming forth from the Vichy government.
The material is compiled chronologically with very little voiceover. Most of the footage is self-explanatory. Almost immediately following the establishment of the Vichy government, laws came into effect identifying Jews. It’s fascinating to watch the chronology of events and the insidious development of collaboration. Quite frankly it’s rather a shock to realise the degree of cooperation that developed between Petain’s government and the Germans–at first it begins with handing over all German political refugees and registering Jews–to France becoming the greatest supplier of arms and goods to Germany.
Some of the newsreel is simple–reports of allied bombings–with the emphasis on British pilots killing innocent French citizens. But a great deal of the newsreel shows Petain drumming up support for Germany with French volunteers for the Eastern Front. In several scenes, Petain also promotes the shipping of volunteer skilled workers to German factories–the deal was for every 3 skilled workers that were sent to Germany, one POW would be returned to France.
The newsreel regarding the “Jewish Problem” is sickening. While some government footage promises to send 1 million French children to the countryside, Jewish children are rounded up, stuffed on trains and shipped directly to the death camps. One film even shows “The Life of a Jew” and compares them to vermin that need to be eradicated.
The film’s lack of form results in an end product that is less than perfect. In some of the newsreel for example, Petain speaks out against the French resistance, and the execution of 50 French citizens is organised to pressure people to become whistleblowers against the resistance. While similar incidents are revealed in the film, a short explanation of events would really assist in showing the complete sinister machinations behind Petain’s actions. For it is in these actions that Petain is shown as being a fawning German puppet rather than simply being misguided and negotiating the “best deal” that he can for a defeated people.
“You are fortunate to be a work of art.”
Red Cherry from director Daying Ye is based on the true story of ChuChu (Ke-Yu Guo) a 13-year-old Chinese girl who’s attending the International School in Moscow in 1940. ChuChu–who witnessed the public execution of her revolutionary father in China–is no stranger to cruelty and violence when German troops overrun a summer camp in Belarus. ChuChu is just one of several children captured by the Nazis. The film follows the fate of ChuChu, Carl Zhang–a German-Chinese student, and Luo (Xiaoling Xu), a 12-year-old Chinese boy.
ChuChu comes to the attention of a bizarre, one-legged Nazi general, a Dr. Von Dietricht whose hobby is tattooing. Kept as a servant within the walls of a monastery for several years, ChuChu becomes a subject for the Dr’s “artistic” whims.
Since Red Cherry is based on a true story, it seems crass to complain that the story is ugly and unpleasant. However, those watching the film should prepare themselves beforehand for several scenes that show close-ups of people–including children–who get their brains blown out at close quarters. The camera explores the lurid, exploitive machinations of the general in some relentless detail, and it does not try to avoid showing absolute brutality. Yet at the same time, the film also engages in moments of blatant sentimentality and cliched scenes depicting decadence. Consequently, Red Cherry is not a particularly easy or enjoyable film to watch. It’s wrenching, and tragic, but the film also seems to have a lingering fascination for some subjects that borders on lurid exploitation. In Mandarin, Russian and German with English subtitles.
“You must be on the stage when the curtain falls.”
Downfall from director Oliver Hirschbiegel focuses on the last days inside of Hitler’s bunker in Berlin. With Soviet troops drawing closer, Hitler (Bruno Ganz) attempts to conduct WWII from inside his final stronghold. Surrounded by generals and loyal followers, Hitler vacillates between moments of clarity (realizing the war is utterly lost), and imagining that he can still win.
Many familiar names from the infamous Rogue’s gallery of the SS appear here–the Minister of Propaganda, Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), Speer (Heino Sprich), and Himmler (Ulrich Noethen). Loyal Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler) is by Hitler’s side until the end, and her blind, glassy-eyed obedience is terrifying. The film juxtaposes scenes inside the bunker with desperate scenes outside in Berlin–where male citizens risked lynching if they didn’t participate in the insane, suicidal defense of Berlin.
Some reviews and articles criticized the film for being too sympathetic to Hitler, and this is probably due, in part to the fact that some of the film is seen through the eyes of Hitler’s young secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara). I didn’t find the film sympathetic to Hitler at all–rather the opposite. I saw Hitler as a madman–with cult leader status and a cult full of death worshippers. In many of the scenes, Hitler has an outburst, and the various generals, & loyal followers in the room sneak looks at one another to gauge others’ reactions. At one point, Hitler even glibly refers to units that no longer exist. In spite of the fact that the generals knew they were in the presence of a madman, no one changed course. And the course was set for death–many of Hitler’s followers decided that a world without National Socialism–a world without the Fuhrer–was a place they didn’t want to live in. Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) takes the award for the most monstrous woman in the film. There’s sympathy here for Hitler’s dog, and the Goebbels children, but apart from that the film is an amazing testament to the cult of Hitler’s destructive personality.
Downfall is riveting, and it captures the desperation, the madness, and the doom of Hitler’s intimate circle. Ganz’s mesmerizing interpretation of Hitler will never be improved upon.
“Your name tops the list of Jewish criminals.”
The film’s unfortunate title The Einstein of Sex is one of the nicknames given to Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a Socialist German Jew whose pioneer studies in human sexuality came to a crashing halt when the Nazis took power. The Einstein of Sex charts Hirschfeld’s life from boyhood in the late 1800s, to his interest in the study of human sexuality, and then concentrates on his medical career.
The film does an excellent job of showing attitudes towards human sexuality at the end of the 19th century. Human subjects under scrutiny are treated abominably, and homosexuals are especially mistreated. German law (specifically Paragraph 175) stated that homosexuality was illegal, and after Hirschfeld encounters a homosexual who commits suicide due to the fear of exposure and blackmail, it becomes Hirschfeld’s goal to have this law repealed.
Hirschfeld battles prejudice, fear and ignorance in a society in which Prussian strains of militarism are deeply embedded. The plot also covers the German Youth Movement and the macho homosexual activist Herr Brand (Ben Becker). Hirschfeld struggles with his own preconceptions of homosexuality at many points, and locks horns with Brand–who believes in ‘outing’ prominent homosexuals to advance the cause.
The film’s production values leave a lot to be desired, and that’s a shame (I’d really like to give this film a higher rating due to its unusual and worthy content). The quality here is about what you’d expect from a televised play, and at times, it’s rather amateurish. Some of the acting is spotty–the scene at the club of transvestites is especially poor. Two actors play Hirschfeld as an adult–Kai Schuhmann plays the younger version, and Friedel von Wangenheim plays the middle-aged Hirschfeld; meanwhile, other characters do not age at all. The film’s quality distracts from the excellently conveyed texture and culture of Weimar’s Germany.
The film was at its best–and most powerful–in the final half hour. An interview with the engaging filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim is included in the DVD extras, and this interview is well worth watching. Von Praunheim explains that he adopted a feminine name, ‘Rosa’ in remembrance of the pink triangle homosexuals were forced to wear in concentration camps. In German with English subtitles.