German Film Festival 2015

May 16, 2015
From Caligari to Hitler by Rüdiger Suchsland
From Caligari to Hitler by Rüdiger Suchsland

“What does cinema know, that we don’t?” This is the question asked by Rüdiger Suchsland’s documentary, From Caligari to Hitler, one of the highlights of this year’s Audi Festival of German Film. The topic is the cinema of the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first tempestuous experiment with democracy, which lasted from 1919 -1933, when it was terminated by the Nazis.

The title of the documentary is borrowed from a famous study of 1947 written by German critic, Siegfried Kracauer, subtitled A Psychological History of German Film. With the wisdom of hindsight the book traces the premonitions of Nazism that appeared in the movies of the 1920s. It’s a persuasive reading, although Kracauer has been criticised for ignoring the films that preceded the Weimar era and for not doing justice to the influences of foreign cinema.

Suchsland follows Kracauer’s thesis, adding some thoughts from Lotte Eisner’s equally fascinating book, The Haunted Screen (1952); and expanding the focus of both studies. With the addition of newsreel footage he presents a narrative in which it is almost impossible to draw a line between social history and cinema history.

The Weimar films are full of would-be dictators, petty crooks, show girls, psychopaths, Teutonic heroes and super-villains. One need only think of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), with its dystopian vision of a state in which workers are no better than automatons. Lang also made three films about the master criminal, Dr. Mabuse – no less a man of thousand faces than Lon Chaney; an exemplar of that Nietzschean postulate, the triumph of the will.

I’ve often felt the Australian equivalent of “triumph of the will” might be “Have a go!”. Now this phrase seems to have been enshrined as a state slogan.

The Weimar era was a time of extremes in which the right and the left fought for control of German hearts and minds. There was hyper-inflation, crushing poverty, decadence and debauchery. One of the side effects of social instability was an unprecedented artistic ferment, as the Zeitgeist fuelled the experiments of artists, writers and filmmakers.

Lang, who believed in film as an art form, remains the best-known director of the age, but the roll call of talent includes F.W. Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch, G.W. Pabst, Josef Von Sternberg, Paul Wegener, Robert Weine, and a host of figures who seem to have passed into obscurity such as Robert Reinert, (Nerven, 1919), Arnold Fanck (The Holy Mountain, 1926), Paul Czinner (Fraulein Else, 1929), Werner Hochbaum (Brother, 1929), and a rare female director, Marie Harder (Bookkeeper Kremke, 1930), who died in an accident in Mexico in 1936.

This documentary includes clips from many films, allowing a glimpse of the extraordinary inventiveness of the Weimar directors, as the Expressionism of Murnau gave way to something resembling Neo-Realism in Hochbaum’s movies. Fanck specialised in mountain epics in which heroic climbers pitted themselves against Nature at her most ferocious. All his films might be interpreted as metaphors for the German people overcoming the ravages of the First World War. In order to keep making films Fanck decided to collaborate with the Nazis, but it was the ruin of his career. (Incidentally, one of his films acts as a motif in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria.)

Suchsland also analyses some of the more experimental Weimar films, such as Walter Ruttmann’s visual tour-de-force, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), and the unique People on Sunday (1930), scripted by Billy Wilder, and co-directed by Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Fred Zinnemann and Rochus Gliese. All except Gliese would become renowned Hollywood directors.

People on Sunday is a movie with amateur actors, in which – Shock! Horror! – nothing exceptional happens. Suchsland argues that it prefigures the French New Wave of the 1960s.

From Caligari to Hitler leaves one ready for a Weimar film festival, but many of the movies discussed are not widely available. It’s easy enough to find DVD versions of masterpieces such as Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) or Lang’s M (1931), while Metropolis keeps getting re-released in new versions as extra bits are located; but where are the films of Reinert, Hochbaum or Czinner? I suddenly feel there are terrible gaps in my cinema knowledge that need to be filled.

There is a taste of Weimar fantasy in Murnau’s Faust (1926) which is being screened as part of this year’s line-up with a live soundtrack by composer, Thomas Köner.

Among the talking heads in From Caligari to Hitler are contemporary directors such as Volker Schlöndorff and Fatih Akin. Both speak knowledgeably about the cinema of the 1920s and describe its discovery as a revelation. Subsequently it was surprising and disappointing to watch Akin’s new film, The Cut, which deals with the controversial topic of the 1915 Turkish massacre of the Armenians and the diaspora that followed.

This is an immensely brave subject for a director of Turkish extraction to undertake, but Akin has produced a drawn-out example of the parent-seeking-child genre that falls prey to the inevitable pitfalls of sentimentality and seems to hold every scene far longer than is necessary. The movie will be too laborious for a mainstream market but too compromised – indeed, corny – to appeal to a more knowledgable audience.

Much of the dialogue is dubbed into English, making it sound even worse than it must have been in German, Turkish, Armenian, or whatever. The lead role of the stoic father, Nazaret, is played by Tahar Rahim, whom we last saw as a cheeky, womanising, illegal immigrant in Samba (2013). Small and boyish of demeanour, Rahim seems singularly unsuited to the role of a village blacksmith, let alone a hardened refugee. He has few lines because his throat is partially cut when he survives a mass execution, rendering him mute for most of the film.

On his quest, which takes him through the Middle East to Cuba, Florida, Minneapolis and South Dakota, Nazaret finds friends and aggressors in predictable succession. His name marks him out as a Christ-like figure and there is an air of inevitability about his tribulations. I’m afraid the Armenians will have to wait for a movie that brings their story to the world because The Cut suggests Akin’s talents are not well-suited to the epic format.

Another disappointment this year was Beloved Sisters, an historical picture about a three-sided relationship between the sisters Charlotte and Caroline von Lengefeld (Henriette Confurius and Hannah Herzsprung) and the poet, Friedrich Schiller (played by Festival guest, Florian Stetter). It’s a story that promises much, as the ménage violates all the sexual conventions of the day, flirting continuously with scandal. Yet director, Dorian Graf, fails to reconcile the salacious aspects with the reverence accorded a great writer.

The result is a literary soap opera set in the late 18th century, moved along by lengthy passages of correspondence. At 138 minutes the gloss and sparkle gradually wear off, leaving us with an interminable succession of exchanges in which the characters become progressively more tiresome. There is also an extended version of the film that goes for 171 minutes, although I can hardly imagine sitting through another half hour of this stuff.

Perhaps my expectations were too high for movies such as The Cut and Beloved Sisters, but there are plenty of other options. This year’s program includes almost 50 films, covering most genres. There is even a western – The Dark Valley, which is not as surprising as it sounds, considering the Germans’ long-term love affair with the novels of Karl May (1842-1912), whose admirers ranged from Albert Einstein to Adolf Hitler. Mark Twain is also represented, in a new film version of The Adventures of Huck Finn.

The most engaging movie I’ve seen so far is Who Am I – No System is Safe, a fast-paced cyber-thriller about a computer nerd that joins up with a band of thrill-seeking hackers who find themselves on “the dark side” of the Internet. Director, Baran bo Odar, gives us a plot with multiple twists and turns, plus visuals that echo the style of computer games. Watch this film alongside Unfriended, and you may develop second thoughts about the daily ritual of sitting down in front of that glowing screen.

Johannes Naber’s The Age of Cannibals is a brief, taut movie that feels like a stage play with echoes of Samuel Beckett. The three main characters are corporate business consultants who spend their lives travelling to poor, war-torn countries in order to spread the gospel of capitalist austerity. The action never gets out of the front door of a five star hotel, but the dialogue is sharp, funny and often sinister.

There is also much to like about The Whole Shebang, Doris Dorrie’s comedy-drama about a woman called Apple (Nadja Uhl) who is still trying to deal with the mess of her life, after having been raised by a hippy mother, Ingrid, (Hannelore Elsner) who believed in non-materialism and free love. It’s a film about choices – those that life makes for us, and those we can claw back from the hand of fate. It looks at a childhood debacle from both the daughter’s and mother’s perspectives, with a highly original set of supporting characters, including a cute dog called Dr. Sigmund Freud. As you can see there is a certain amount of Käse und Schinken involved but Dorrie’s clever, humane film is more nourishing for the soul than some of the more fancied items on a Festival program that delivers more than its share of pleasure and pain.

Audi Festival of German Film 2015
Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide, Perth, Byron Bay, Hobart, 13-31 May
For details: http://www.goethe.de/ozfilmfest/

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 16th May, 2015.