Tag Archives: German film

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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Eight Miles High (2007)

 “This is fucked up. I only meant a metaphorical bomb.”

The interesting but ultimately unsatisfying and superficial biopic Eight Miles High (Das Wilden Life) from director Achim Bornhak covers just a portion of the life of German supermodel Uschi Obermaier–from the mid 60s until 1983. Culturally, these were probably the colorful years, but when the final credits rolled, I couldn’t help but wonder what parts of the story were missing….

eight-miles-highThe film begins when Uschi (Natalia Avelon) leaves home and her big-bosomed Bavarian mother behind and sets out for Berlin, landing in Berlin’s first commune–aptly named Kommune 1. In the ‘free love’ atmosphere, she begins sleeping with Rainer Langhans (Matthias Schweighofer), and the free love notion works well for Rainer until Uschi becomes a groupie and starts sleeping with Mick Jagger (Victor Noren) and Keith Richards (Alexander Scheer). Uschi’s relationship with two members of the Stones begins with a trip to England where she attends a party that could, uncannily belong to the Beggars Banquet album. The camera rightly concentrates on the impressions of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards–studiously avoiding close-ups and facial expressions.

The film depicts Uschi as the major reason for Kommune 1’s disintegration, and since she took ‘free love’ to a level, that apparently her lover Rainer could not tolerate, this might be accurate, and if it’s not true it’s certainly amusing. The residents of Kommune 1 are depicted as a bunch of brawling, immature, egomaniacal twits with Uschi as the only one who has her shit together.

The claim that Uschi was a “radical model” is shown is her ability to grab the cinematic opportunity–especially when she managed to get her photo on the cover of a magazine depicting her in between the police and protesters. Uschi continued to grab headlines worldwide and this continued after her explosive relationship with Hamburg nightclub owner Dieter Bockhorn (David Scheller)–a free spirit of an entirely different sort. Together he and Uschi traveled the world in pursuit of new adventures. These adventures are largely interpreted as Uschi going around naked (or marginally clothed), picking up animals, and daringly toting drugs across borders under the noses of the buffoons in charge.

Ultimately with lines like “what I needed was a man. The wilder the better” we are left with little understanding of what made Uschi tick. True she’s depicted as a woman who refused to allow any man to own her but this comes across in just a couple of scenes in mostly superficial ways. While the film was entertaining enough, this is a largely superficial treatment of Uschi’s life. I’d like to think that there was a lot more going on than just naked romps across the world. In German with subtitles.

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The Gleiwitz Case (1961)

 “The job we are doing is part of a master plan.”

gleiwitz caseThe documentary style black and white film The Gleiwitz Case recreates a long buried incident that sparked WWII. In 1939, a staged attack was conducted against a radio station in Gleitwitz–a few miles away from Germany’s border with Poland. The Gleiwitz incident was part of Operation Himmler–an orchestrated Gestapo plan to demonstrate “Polish aggression” against Nazi Germany, and it was supposed to provide the perfect excuse Germany needed to invade Poland.

Alfred Naujocks (Hannjo Hasse) organized the incident operating under the direct orders of Heinrich Muller and Reinhard Heydrich. The plan was to attack the station using Polish-speaking German officers. These officers–dressed in Polish uniforms–grabbed the airwaves and made hostile statements against Nazi Germany using Polish and broken German. Then as further ‘evidence’ left behind, the Germans took a Pole from a concentration camp, dressed him in a Polish uniform and shot him in the front of the radio station.

The film is basically a recreation of events–there’s no examination of the psychology of the characters, but this is an excellent portrayal of the cold efficiency of the Third Reich in operation. The film’s realism and pacing is reminiscent of The Battle of Algiers–with an emphasis on close-ups and a breathtaking immediacy. The film is a chilling reminder of exactly how calculating the Gestapo were when it came to propaganda, and it’s a demonstration of a government using a range of propaganda devices to ‘sell’ a war to the people–enraging a nation and whipping it into a war frenzy. In this instance, Hitler publicly preached reason and patience and in reality created a moral imperative and a fictional urgency to justify war. The Gleiwitz incident took place on August 31, 1939, and the next day, Germany invaded Poland. The film ends with the chilling caption: “43 million dead.” DVD extras include: the trailer, a photo gallery, an essay “The Case of the Gleiwitz Case”, biographies and filmographies. Directed by Gerhard Klein, the film is in German with English subtitles.

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What to do in Case of Fire (2001)

“They are politically misguided and sexually depraved.”

“We breathed in the same stuff as those anarchists.”

This lively German film begins in Berlin 1987 with footage of clashes between the German police and anarchists. Fast forward 13 years to 2000 when a bomb explodes in an empty building. Two people are injured in the blast, and a police hunt begins for those responsible. The bomb is analyzed and its construction places it within the period 1984-1988. Manowsky (Klaus Lowitsch) a veteran policeman who specialized in subversives during that time period is called in to solve the case. Manowsky begins digging back through lists of subversives from the 80s and during a police raid in a squat in notorious Machnow Street, a large amount of material is seized from two anarchists-Tim (Til Schweiger) and Hotte (Martin Feifel).

The police don’t know it, but they’ve accidentally managed to seize evidence that will identify and convict all the members of Group 36. The members of this anarchist collective, unfortunately, foolishly took souvenir footage of some of their exploits, and Tim and Hotte realize it’s just a matter of time before the police examine the film and track them all down. Back in the 80s, the group consisted of six comrades-four males and 2 females who shared the squat in Machnow Street. Only Tim and Hotte are still true to their anarchist beliefs, and the other four members have been recuperated by capitalist society to one degree or another. Tim and Hotte, who have no contact with the former members of the collective in years, initially, plan to flee to Poland, but instead, they decide to remain behind, and warn their former comrades.

The former members of the collective have various reactions to seeing Tim and Hotte again. Terror (Matthias Matschke) is now a lawyer, Nele (Nadja Uhl) is a single mother, Flo (Doris Schretzmayer) is affluent and about to get married, and Maik (Sebastian Blomberg) is an extremely wealthy advertising executive, considered a bit of a rebel by the business types who surround him. These four would rather forget the past, but with a criminal case looming before them, they can’t. In fact, since these four have `new lives’ (to one extent or another), they actually have far more to lose than Tim and Hotte, but at the same time, now they’re `respectable’, they seem unlikely to plan and participate in a raid on the fortified police barracks.

Many resentments simmer beneath the surface of the relationships of these six ex-collective members. Will they be able to work together to seize back the incriminating film? Tim and Hotte both feel abandoned by their former friends, and the film emphasizes the connection between the people they used to be and the people they’ve become. Maik, the most affluent of the six, seems the most appalled by the conditions of the squat, and he can hardly believe that he once lived there with his friends. The four recuperated anarchists (Terror, Nele, Flo, and Maik) don’t particularly want to address the moral shift of their movement from anarchism, and the implication seems to be that they’ve “moved on” from their youthful enthusiasm and energy, and simply given up the struggle. Ironically, the group’s old nemesis, Manowsky, has a grudging respect for those who didn’t ‘sell out’ and this supplies the film with a surprisingly-although slightly unbelievable ending. In German with subtitles What to Do In Case of Fire is directed by Gregor Schnitzler.

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The Edukators (2004)

 “You go to all these protests against exploitation and oppression, but you’re still some rich bastard’s slave. The rebellion is different now. Before all it took was dope and long hair. And the establishment was automatically against you. What was considered subversive then you can buy in shops today, Che Guevara t-shirts or anarchy stickers.” 

In the film The Edukators two young German men take their political beliefs to the next level with Direct Action. To make a statement against capitalism, they invade the mansions of the wealthy, rearrange valuables and leave messages such as “your days of plenty are numbered.” While Peter (Stipe Erceg) has no compunction about a little proletariat reclamation in order to help fund their activities, Jan (Daniel Bruhl) feels that lifting a Rolex from the mansion of the wealthy makes them seem like common burglars and lessens their mission. After all, there’s the implicit idea that a burglar is engaged in an action motivated by class envy and is simply stealing the things he cannot afford. But rearranging the trinkets of the rich creates an absurdity out of their ‘value,’ and a mockery of their security of their fortress-like villas.

edukatorsPeter and Jan, who are firm friends, are discreet about their activities, but when Peter goes off to Spain, he leaves his girlfriend Jule (Julia Jentsch) in Jan’s care. Partly out of revenge against a wealthy capitalist and partly to show off to Jule, Jan takes Jule on an Edukator Spree. But when things go horribly wrong, Peter is dragged into the mess, and the trio kidnap wealthy middle-aged businessman Hardenberg.

Interesting dynamics occur during the post-kidnapping phase. At first, Peter and Jan are mainly confrontational with Hardenburg, and several credible scenes occur in which opposing viewpoints are presented as conversations. Hardenburg claims that “most people are happy only when buying something new.” Jan takes offence at this trite remark and replies: 

“Happy? Think they’re happy, Hardenburg? Look around. Get out of that company car. Walk on the street. Anyone look happy? Or more like caged animals? Look into their living rooms. All glued to the TV. Listening to chic zombies, speaking of a happiness long gone. Drive around town. You’ll see the filth, the overcrowding, the masses in department stores. Up and down like robots on escalators. Nobody knows anybody….But I have news for you, Mr. Executive. The system is overheated. We’re just the forerunners. Your time is almost over. Swim in your shit technology, but others are full of rage. The rage of children living in slums watching American action films.  

That’s one part, let’s see…Mental illness is rising. Serial killers, shattered souls, senseless violence…You can’t sedate them with game shows and shopping. The antidepressants won’t work forever either. The people have had enough of your shit system.” 

Hardenberg is not an idiot. He plays his three kidnappers by exploiting Jule’s relationship with the two men, and also by appealing to their belief system. Hardenberg claims that in his youth he was a radical, a member of SDS and knew student leader Rudi Dutschke. Hardenberg’s claim that he was seduced by capitalism strikes a deep, sympathetic chord with his kidnappers, and they soon begin to question their own integrity. Although initially Hardenburg’s fate is in the hands of his kidnappers, before long, the roles are reversed and as the situation between Peter, Jan and Jule disintegrates and the tension rises, Hardenburg becomes more at ease, more in control. As the manipulator of the situation, he seems to be enjoying himself at several points.

Ethics are at the root of this tale. While the plot teases the viewer with the dilemma of Hardenberg’s fate, the sophisticated conclusion isn’t predictable. One criticism I have about the film is that Hardenberg’s claim to be a radical in his youth is not given sufficient treatment or substantiated. After all, most people who were in Germany during the 70s would know Rudi Dutschke’s name, so it’s entirely plausible that Hardenberg simply builds a myth of early student involvement in order to generate sympathy from his kidnappers.  

My personal feeling on the subject is that Hardenberg is lying about his radical past. But many people watching the film will come to the opposite conclusion and decide that Hardenburg speaks the truth and is indeed a radical recuperated by capitalist society. Being a radical in one’s youth, and then being slowly recuperated by capitalist society is both accepted and dreaded, depending on who you’re talking to. And Hardenburg offers a very plausible explanation for why his belief system changed: “ It happens slowly, gradually. You hardly notice it. One day you abandon your old car….You create endless debts, so you need a career to pay for them.” So whether or not Hardenburg’s explanation of his moral shift is true, he certainly offers a plausible and common explanation. Youthful radicalism is often tolerated by society with a certain patronizing nostalgia, and is seen as a natural avoidance of responsibility, a phase to be ‘grown out of out’ when the young ‘come to their senses.’ 

Whether or not Hardenberg WAS radical in his youth is germane to the entire film, and the director leaves that decision, that judgment, up to the viewer. However, at the end of the film the subtle cryptic note “some people never change” says it all–and covers ultimately both Hardenberg and the Edukators’ complex behaviour. In German with subtitles from director Hans Weingartner.

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Germany in Autumn (1978)

 “When cruelty reaches a certain point, it’s no longer important who initiated it. It should only stop.”

germany-in-autumnGermany in Autumn (Deutschland im Herbst) is one of the most important political films to emerge from Germany in the wake of the Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion). This is a collaborative film made by 11 directors from New German Cinema, including Fassbinder and Schlondorff. The directors’ intent is to re-create the tense atmosphere in Germany during the autumn of 1977. At the time, members of the Red Army Faction (RAF) were serving life sentences in solitary confinement for murder in the high security prison, Stammheim. This was a period of extreme political unrest for West Germany. The founding organizers of the RAF were either locked up or dead, but the urban guerilla problem was not solved. It intensified–with the emergence of a much more violent ‘second generation’ RAF who subsequently conducted a wave of guerilla actions throughout Germany.

In September 1977, second generation Red Army Faction members, kidnapped industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer, former SS officer and now President of the Employers’ Federation. The kidnappers demanded the release of several prisoners–including the RAF members in Stammheim. While the West German government played for time, in October a plane was hijacked and flown to Mogadishu. The crew and the passengers were held hostage while the hijackers demanded a hostage exchange, including the release of jailed RAF members: Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan Carl Raspe. The hijacking failed. The day after the failed hijacking, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe were found dead in their cells, and their deaths were officially ruled suicides. Schleyer was also later found dead. This period in Germany’s history–autumn of 1977–is considered an extremely volatile time for the new German Republic.

Framed by funerals, Germany in Autumn is part documentary, part fiction, and while the film shows the fallout following the deaths of Schleyer and members of the RAF, it also shows how people deal with state and individual terrorism on all levels of life. The film begins with footage of the state funeral of Schleyer, and includes scenes from Rommel’s state funeral, the assassination of the King of Serbia, and the film ends with the triple funeral of Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe. There is, of course, a strong, connective thread of violence that runs through the footage shown: Rommel committed suicide under duress but his death was officially announced as the result of a heart attack or the result of injuries. The King of Serbia, who was assassinated under the auspices of German Secret Service agents, was a victim of state terrorism. And then of course, this brings us to the deaths of Baader, Ensslin and Raspe, whose deaths were officially ruled suicides–a notion that Germany in Autumn treats as patently absurd. The film includes details of where and how the RAF members were buried, and horse-mounted police monitor the well-attended funeral with helicopters circling overhead. At one point, riot police enter the scene and start whacking mourners with batons.

Also included is a jail interview with Horst Mahler, co founder of the Red Army Faction. He refused to be included in the hostage exchange, and in his interview, Mahler presents strong condemnation for the kidnapping and murder of Schleyer, and this act he interprets to be evidence of the terrorists’ ultimate corruption by capitalism. He states, “a murderer departs from the moral value system. A revolutionary reinforces it.” Horst Mahler was already expelled from the Red Army Faction when he was arrested and sentenced to 14 years, so it’s not too surprising that he refused to be included in the prisoner for hostage exchange. I should add here that Mahler is (as of 12/07) alive and well but went off the deep end politically and now holds very right-wing views.

Other fictional sections of the film depict how German society is altered by the political situation in 1977. In one segment, for example, a film director attempts to release his version of Antigone for television–only to be told that the play depicts ‘terrorist women.’ Antigone, it seems, is too controversial and must be shelved until a time when acts of civil disobedience are not interpreted as condoning acts of terrorism. There’s a bitter amusement to this section of the film as the censors find Sophocles too controversial despite the painstaking efforts on the part of the director to include elaborate and lengthy disclaimers. And of course, the refusal to air Antigone is a sad reflection on how far German society has sunk.

Another chilling fictional section concerns a border guard on the hunt for stray members of the so-called Baader-Meinhoff gang. The border guard aches to fly an American plane full of Napalm, but instead his power is limited to harassing travelers and teasing them with the idea that they bear an uncanny resemblance to fugitive RAF members.

One of the RAF’s grievances was that German history very effectively glossed over the pasts of some of their affluent industrialists, and that as a result former Nazis still ran the country. This issue of the rewriting of history is alluded to early in the film through the deaths of the King of Serbia and the forced suicide of Rommel. But the film explores this at the individual level through another fictional section dealing with a history teacher in crisis who suddenly finds herself unable to teach history because she’s no longer sure what is true and what she should teach.

Director Fassbinder’s interpretation of the political and social climate of Germany in Autumn 1977 is a highly personal account. No doubt Fassbinder chose to present his section of the film this way as he knew many members of the RAF. Fassbinder is seen at home with his lover, actor Armin Meier, and they have vastly different opinions about the deaths of Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe. Armin is ready to blow up the plane and the terrorists in Mogadishu with the reasoning: “if they don’t obey the law, the state doesn’t have to either.” Fassbinder, however, cannot accept the justification that government is free to use violent tactics when dealing with terrorists. Bitter arguments ensue between Fassbinder and Armin, and Fassbinder, who was notoriously difficult in his personal relationships in real life, is depicted here as being rather hard with Armin. With the debate raging around the argument that the state has the monopoly on the use of physical force, Armin argues that the imprisoned RAF members should be “shot or hanged.” Fassbinder asks his lover “who’s going to do that for you?” And Armin answers: “the state.” These positions and these arguments are, of course, representative of two sides of the debate. Armin argues the idea that it’s open season on the RAF as laws need not apply because the RAF are the ones who started with illegal actions in the first place. Fassbinder argues the other side–that the State does not have the right to kill anyone simply because they have the power to do so and are not answerable to any other entity.

Subsequently, when Fassbinder hears the news of the deaths of the jailed RAF members, he is devastated, and he most certainly does not swallow the official story that Baader, Ensslin and Raspe kept some sort of suicide pact. Calling a friend in Paris, he points out the absurdity of the state’s claims that Baader and Raspe shot themselves, while supposedly Ensslin hung herself.

To Fassbinder the idea that an international commission will investigate the deaths is absolutely ludicrous. Noting that Stammheim is the “most secure prison in the world. With a law to prevent contacts. Where nobody is allowed in cells, the cells are searched twice daily,” and yet despite all this, the world is supposed to believe that the RAF members had “real guns hidden” inside their cells inside the prison.

Fassbinder, who dominates a large portion of the film, engages his mother, Lilo Eder, in an argument about various forms of government. As someone who has survived through Nazi times, she acknowledges that in the current political climate, it’s better not to discuss the RAF in case one is identified as some sort of sympathizer. She believes that democracy does not exist for the masses, and preferring the oxymoronic notion of a benign authoritarian leader, she’s content to leave certain issues to be decided by a hierarchy. Thus, it’s seen, that like Armin, she’s quite comfortable with rendering power over to government because they supposedly make decisions for the ‘good’ of those who dwell under their laws.

Germany in Autumn is not for the casually curious. The film is truly excellent, and the directors made a phenomenal film that recreates a crucial time in Germany’s history. However, a little background information on the political situation is mandatory for this film–otherwise you risk being hopelessly lost in this wonderful, engrossing and eclectic film.

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The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975)

 “Typically bourgeois novels.”

An introverted young German girl named Katharina Blum (Angela Winkler) meets a man at a party. Unaware that he’s under police surveillance, she takes him home for the night. When the police raid her flat the next day, expecting to find Ludwig (Jurgen Prochnow), they discover that he’s slipped away. Since Katharina is now their only lead, they begin to pressure her about Ludwig’s whereabouts.

katharinaThe Lost Honor of Katharina Blum examines exactly what happens to a young woman whose privacy is ripped away by an unscrupulous journalist Werner Totges (Dieter Laser) who’s in cahoots with the police. Following leads given by the police, Totges invades every aspect of Katharina’s life–harassing her dying mother, interviewing a disgruntled ex-husband, and basically feeding her private information to anyone who cares to buy a paper. Katharina–who was nick-named ‘the Nun’, becomes the target of threatening and suggestive phone calls. Even the titles of her books come under scrutiny.

The film tracks how one young girl whose life squarely fits the norm, inadvertently transgresses. Once she is no longer the norm, and she’s seen to be acquainted, connected or possibly sympathetic to a terrorist, she’s vulnerable to the various power levels placed in society–neighbours, former friends, newspaper readers–all become the jurors of her morality–until she as effectively isolated from society as Ludwig. The film raises some interesting questions about journalistic ethics, but in these days of tabloid sensationalism, the film’s shock effect is numbed. Instead, the outrage remains the tainting of the reputations of Katharina’s relatives and employers–nice people who just try to stand by her. In spite of the fact that the film is a bit dated, it’s still relevant today–especially in light of the recent allegations of illegal wiretaps and surveillance currently being conducted by the Bush administration. The film is based on the novel by Heinrich Boll–a journalist who wrote an article in Der Spiegel questioning whether a bank robbery was really the work of the Red Army Faction. Boll suffered the consequences of his stance. The novel and the film are the results of his experiences and a criticism of the tabloid sensationalism tactics of the Springer Press. DVD extras include an interview with directors Volker Schlondorff and Margaretha von Trotta, excerpts from a documentary by Heinrich Boll, and an interview with the cinematographer. In German with English subtitles.

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Legend of Rita (2000)

 “To my liberation from the class enemy!”

ritaRita Vogt (Bibiana Beglau) is one member of a West German urban guerilla group (obviously meant to be the RAF) who springs comrade, Andrea (Harald Schrott) from jail. Several people are shot during the jailbreak, and the group goes on the lam to Paris. While in Paris, Rita kills a policeman, and the guerillas are once again on the run–this time they slip into East Germany with the help of Stasi officer Erwin Hull (Martin Wuttke) who befriended Rita when she was recognized upon entering East Berlin before. Since the heat is on the group, Erwin makes an offer–the fugitives can accept a new life–with new identities in East Germany, or they can be flown out to Beirut. While everyone else elects Beirut, Rita decides to stay in East Germany.

Rita assumes a new identity in East Germany, and her adjustment to her environment is at the heart of The Legend of Rita from director Volker Schlondorff. The plot places Rita in some interesting situations. Her first job, for example, is in a factory where she befriends Tatjana (Nadja Uhl). Tatjana loathes East Germany, and would love to live in the West. She can’t understand why Rita (now living under an assumed name) would give up Western freedoms and chose to live under Communist rule. In the meantime, Rita’s former rebelliousness against the state has simply disappeared, and she’s become a drone–speaking the party line and accepting whatever she’s told to do. When Rita’s new identity is threatened, she has little choice but to move on–leaving Tatjana and their budding lesbian affair.

The film fails to fulfill its promise, however, on several layers. Rita becomes a pawn for the Stasi–every move she makes is watched, and every conversation she has is taped. The film could have chosen to tackle some fascinating complex arguments–Rita’s ideology, for example, and the challenge she faces in either rejecting her beliefs or sticking to them in the face of such nauseating, dreary and threatening Orwellian bureaucracy. The plot shows Rita as mindlessly accepting what she is told to do–she doesn’t question her freedoms, and by making Rita a drone, she is a far less interesting character. Instead, the film concentrates on Rita’s two love interests. If you are expecting to discover something about the Red Army Faction here, keep looking. This is not really a film about the RAF.

Director Volker Schlondorff received a great deal of criticism from all sides for this film. At a press showing of the film, some booed and some applauded. There were those who thought his portrayal of the RAF was too ‘soft’ and others who thought he was too harsh. But the fact of the matter remains that Stasi files made public after the collapse of East Germany revealed that some members of the RAF were indeed given sanctuary by the GDR. In German with English subtitles.

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Filed under German, Political/social films, Volker Schlondorff

Knife in the Head (1978)

 “I am … Nobody.”

knifeThe German film Knife in the Head (Messer Im Kopf) from director Reinhard Hauff is one of a handful of films created to reflect and question society in post-Red Army Faction Germany. Knife in the Head is the story of a perfectly innocent German citizen who becomes caught up in the state machine when he’s erroneously identified as a terrorist. Deemed guilty for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he’s framed in order to justify police brutality.

The film concerns bio-geneticist Hoffman (Bruno Ganz) who’s separated from his wife Anna (Angela Winkler). When the film begins Hoffman tries to contact Anna, and when that doesn’t work, he drives over to one of her frequent haunts–a youth center on Jacobi Strasse. But just as Hoffman arrives, the police raid the building. Hoffman, anxious about Anna, ignores police orders to stay out of the building, and he runs inside. He’s ordered to stop. He turns, and he’s shot in the head. Barely alive, he’s taken to the hospital for emergency surgery.

Hoffman survives, but his survival brings a host of problems. Hoffman faces years of physical rehabilitation. Paralyzed on his right side, he’s also lost a great deal of his memory. He has to relearn speech and is incapable of the simplest acts of self-care; he even has to be taught how to feed himself. The official police version of events is that Hoffman stabbed a policeman who then shot him in self-defense. Meanwhile, the police, convinced that Hoffman is a terrorist, post a 24-hour watch in the hospital, and decide he’s “faking” his injuries. His estranged wife, Anna feels a moral obligation to Hoffman, yet she’s in another relationship with the confrontational Volker (Heinz Hoenig).

The media has a field day with the story, and at first it’s reported that Hoffman just has a few “knocks on the head,” while the policeman’s superficial stab wound is reported as near fatal. Soon the papers (a not-so-subtle criticism of the Springer Press) carry stories about “Berthold Hoffman’s Double Life,” and his reputation is utterly destroyed. A great deal of the film follows Hoffman’s painstakingly slow recovery in the hospital. Unable to defend himself–partly because at first he can’t speak, and partly because he suffers from memory loss–the police build a case against him and want to haul him off to a prison hospital. One huge problem with the official version of events is that there’s no knife to back up the story against Hoffman. And this is where the film’s title comes in–the knife–is a figment of the imagination, and it exists only in someone’s head.

Meanwhile, Volker, who’s a seasoned adversary of the state, reasons that if Hoffman is going to be questioned while he’s incapacitated, he should be groomed for this. He argues: “you want the pigs to make him learn their version, or what?” Anna disagrees, but it’s perhaps Hoffman’s lawyer who takes the more reasonable approach. In this critically sensitive time period for Hoffman, Volker, in trying to spread the word about Hoffman, ends up creating further problems for Hoffman (makes me think of Jeff Luers). All of Hoffman’s life–his work, his education count for nothing as far as the state is concerned, and even though there’s a perfectly rational explanation for why Hoffman was at the Youth Centre, he’s labeled a terrorist and no one outside of Hoffman’s immediate circle questions this version of events.

Anna and Volker visit Hoffman in hospital, and it’s an awkward situation at best–even though Volker states Hoffman is “just a political case.” Each visit to Hoffman is preceded by a search, and here’s the dialogue from one scene:

Volker (to policeman at desk who is calling in to report visitors): What does Big Brother say? Am I a good guy or a bad guy? Check my bank account while you’re at it.

Policeman: No money for 2 years. Your social life is a front. Want to know more?

Volker: Yes

Policeman: You’ve got a police record. Didn’t finish high school. Arrested for disturbing the peace. Three illegal demonstrations this year. Drug abuse too, etc etc.

Volker: So I’m a good guy. How come you and brother aren’t wireless yet?

Policeman: Soon enough. Thanks to you and your friends.

Perhaps the greatest travesty against Hoffman, however, is that after ruining his life, his career, and his health, the police simply ‘move on’ leaving him destroyed. Their attention is now focused on someone else. Hoffman, who’s been an innocent bystander, a victim, and scripted as a terrorist by the police, the media and society, finally takes his fate into his own hands and seeks answers. In German with subtitles.

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Filed under German, Political/social films