Sunday, January 03, 2010

Deuschland Uber Alles

Some Thoughts About:
Nina Hoss, Christian Petzold & New German Cinema

Nina Hoss: Eine bezaubernde Frau

After seeing the acting performance of the year by the star of Max Farberbock's A Woman In Berlin (Eine Frau in Berlin), I backtracked to see other films starring Germany's best actress (und mein lieblingsschauspielerin!), the sublime Nina Hoss.

Nina Hoss gets a Red carpet welcome in "Eine Frau in Berlin"

This led me to two films - Yella (2007) and Jerichow (2008) - by Christian Petzold, who belongs to a New Wave of independent Deutschland filmmakers called the "The Berlin School" (for graduates of Berlin's German Academy of Film and Television) who, in the words of the L.A. Times, are "less interested in naive-realist explorations of national guilt for the Holocaust than in the troubled 21st century of their homeland." That troubled 21st century part includes more than post-WWII national socialism guilt - specifically, issues of East vs. West (post-1989, Germany is now unified and still trying to merge its capitalist vs. socialist post-war mentalities) and, of course, Capitalism vs. Socialism. (We tend to forget that Germany was the birthplace of The Communist Manifesto and its authors Karl Marx and Frederich Engels.) The latter schism is at the heart of Uli Edel's The Baader-Meinhoff Complex (2008), which tracks the 360-degree-opposite ideological shift of the children of the Nazi Generation who grew up having the luxury of rebelling against the comforts and freedoms afforded them in their post-war capitalist democracy. Lest we forget this schism, Thomas, the protagonist of Petzold's Jerichow, lives on Friedrich Engels Street in the former East Germany where, despite now being part of New Germany's Capitalist Democracy, life holds pretty bleak economic opportunities.

Yella (2007)
directed by Christian Petzold
starring Nina Hoss (Yella Fichte), Devid Striesow (Philipp), Hinnerk Schonemann (Ben)

A slow-moving, character-based drama about an abused East German wife who hooks up with a venture capitalist in the West and may or may not be stalked by her dead or alive (?) estranged husband. The film is an acting workshop by Nina Hoss, whose restrained glances and long silences speak volumes and won her a Silver Berlin Bear award for Best Actress at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival.

Nina Hoss mit Silver Bear for "Yella"

Critics took issue with its "Peyton Farquhar" ending (if you catch my Ambrose Bierce drift) but I like films that ask questions of the viewer and the whole enterprise continues to be thought-provoking to this blue-eyed, fair-haired dimwit.

I rented this film from NetFlix and when I viewed the only extra on the DVD, I was initially confused because it's a straight industrial documentary about venture capital called Nothing Ventured (Nichte Ohne Risiko). I kept waiting to see its relation to Yella, and then I found out it's a 2004 film by one of Petzold's "Berlin School" mentors, experimental filmmaker/documentarian Harun Farocki, who is fascinated by the whole process of work, from interviewing to the workplace. Or, as Senses of Cinema's Thomas Elsaesser writes, "...most of Farocki's films have focused on the problems of 'work', 'labour', 'production' as not only categories of the economic – how a society materially produces and ideologically reproduces the means of its survival – but work as the reproduction of the 'subject.'" (Needless to say, I didn't watch it. Work itself is sufficiently boring and soul-sapping that I can't justify spending leisure time re-enacting it!)

Watch the Yella trailer:

Following is one of the best analyses of the film from the blog Movies That Make You Think (www.moviessansfrontiers.blogspot). For example, I learned that Yella's preference for wearing red may be a reference to the Eastern Bloc color of choice in ye olde Deutsche Demokratische Republik.
German filmmaker Christian Petzold's "Yella" (2007): Life Beyond Death
Germany’s Christian Petzold belongs to the new breed of European directors that loves to make films layered with meaning for the astute viewer. Russia’s Andrei Zvyagintsev mesmerized serious film-goers with his multi-layered films that urge film-goers to approach cinema as one would approach a challenging and intelligent puzzle to derive maximum entertainment. Spain’s multi-talented Alejandro Amenabar has proved that a holistic mix of good screenplay, music and direction can result in films that recall the precocious brilliance of the young Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane made so many decades ago. These are films that are delectable for the intelligent and patient viewer who does not demand to be spoon-fed by the director. Members of this exclusive club of directors include Austria’s Michael Haneke and Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki. In Yella, Petzold throws morsels of visual treats at the viewer. The attentive viewer will ask for more, for the less attentive it will be an invitation to snore.

“Yella” is the name of the main character of the film. (Yella is creatively linked to Wim Wender’s key character in his film Alice in the Cities, a character without a mother moving from city to city.). Petzold’s Yella has a father but the mother is either absent or not discussed, not far removed from Wender’s Yella.

Yella wears red most of the time. Now bright red is worn by many women in Europe but the color acquires a different meaning when you realize its political association with East Germany. Petzold’s Yella lives in former East Germany, full of birds, trees, rustic atmosphere and warmth. Petzold’s Yella yearns to make big bucks in the former West Germany, less populated, richer and more corrupt at corporate and personal levels.

Halfway into the film, there is a suicidal motor accident. What follows teases the mind of an attentive viewer. A desperate woman boards a train with empty compartments. A male person peeks into her compartment but leaves her alone. Much later, she realizes that the train has reached its destination and has been parked in a yard. As she strolls into town, her eyes meet with those of a woman, who is apparently well off financially and secure in an urban house. This was in my view the most powerful and enigmatic sequence in the film. Who is this woman? Is it Yella comparing what she would be like in future? When her future benefactor turns out to be a crook, Yella “helps” him. Yella herself slowly transforms into a crooked woman as a chameleon would in new surroundings, all the while yearning for the old life of her father and financially crippled husband.

The second half of the film with its almost empty hotels provides clues to understand the film, just as Amenabar progressively provided several clues in his well-made ghost movie The Others that there is something unreal. Can characters enter locked hotel rooms, eat food and disappear? Would characters who once stalked Yella be transformed into characters that Yella would herself pursue in dark alleyways outside her hotel instead of hiding from them? Who is alive and who is dead? What is real and what is imaginary? Why is the sale price of the husband’s business, eerily the same figure as the figure quoted to purchase computers? You are coaxed by your own inquisitiveness to go backwards in the film to figure that out. Somewhere floating in the water after the accident you can spot an empty can of Coca-cola, a symbol of western materialism and prosperity.

There are aspects of the film that bothers me. Why did Yella leave her husband? Because he was obsessed with her? Why is the mother figure absent? Is true love absent?

Yella is portrayed by actor Nina Hoss and the performance won her a Silver Bear for the Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival. The film’s editor, cinematographer, and director—all three have been separately honored with minor awards for their contributions in this film. The surprise for me was that the story was written by first time writer Simone Baer, basically an established casting director. It is remarkable that Baer and Petzold should weave an interesting film around personal guilt, aspirations and quality of life. I was intrigued how a male director could delve inside the female psyche so well until I was amused to spot that the original writer was Simone Baer, a woman.

Petzold and the "club" of like-minded European directors invite the audience to think and reflect about themselves after they view these movies. These films offer interesting views on politics, ethics, business and love. They may or may not be obvious. It is for the viewer to spot them. They are not served on a platter. The story on screen remains as a pivotal point for the debate to begin among viewers. These films urge you to consider your own situation in life and reflect how you would react under similar circumstances shown in these films. Even though I viewed Yella while on a trans-Atlantic flight, I found the film worthy to be included on this blog. Petzold is definitely worth your time if you are a viewer of serious, quality cinema.

Jerichow (2008)
by Christian Petzold
starring Nina Hoss (Laura), Benno Furmann (Thomas), Ali Ozkan (Ali)

Three's a Crowd: Jerichow's Love Triangle

Once again James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice gets a foreign makeover that, while it may not match Visconti's 1943 noir adaptation Ossessione, is still powerful and admirable in execution. Following the death of his mother, dishonorably discharged Afghanistan vet Thomas (Benno Furmann) returns to his home village of Jerichow in desolate northeast Germany, where work is hard to come by and his prospects look bleak. But when Ali (Ali Ozkan), a local Turkish-German businessman who runs a snack-bar chain, hires him as a driver, Thomas meets his boss's attractive wife Laura (Nina Hoss). Thus we have our principles in the classic Cain love traingle: Benno/Thomas in the John Garfield drifter role, Nina/Laura playing the Lana Turner femme fatale, and Ali servicing as the cuckolded abusive husband (originally Nick the Greek but here given a Teutonic twist as a Turk - the new "outsider" in modern Germany, where Turks represent the leading minority culture).

Nina Hoss ponders Petzold's next inscrutable ending

"Caught between guilt and freedom, between passion and reason, the protagonists have no hopes for fulfillment of their dreams..." runs one IMDB description of the film, but that makes the film sound more edgy than it is. Petzold's gift, and his defining style, is understatement. His films seem to lull viewers into leisurely-paced, seemingly unremarkable character studies. And then comes...the unexpected ending. Or, as the A.V. Club blog described it:
"...the final five minutes of Jerichow recontextualizes everything we’ve just seen, in ways that raise it a notch above the standard-issue B-noir homage. Petzold doesn’t introduce a shocking twist or thrilling setpiece, but through a few key lines of dialogue, some minor revelations about character backstory, and a couple of heart-stopping moments of suspense, Jerichow raises unsettling questions about issues of national identity, trust, and generosity. The movie ends abruptly, setting up an epilogue that viewers will have to provide for themselves. Jerichow’s sparseness, tiny cast, and minimal plot can make the film seem a little elusive, but there’s a certain elegance to Petzold’s concision, too. He shows all he wants us to see."

One of those key lines referenced above is Ali's introspective moment when he says, "I'm going to die alone in a country that doesn't want me, with a woman I bought." Killer line. Literally.

Watch the Jerichow trailer:

Petzold's films, and the three films I've seen Nina Hoss in to date, are food for thought. Ones I am still chewing on. But definitely worth seeking out.

Related Links:
Yella: Life Beyond Death (moviessansfrontiers blog)
Introduction: Harun Farocki (Senses of Cinema)


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3:28 PM  

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