Monthly Archives: January 2010

A Chilling Masterpiece

The White Ribbon – a disturbing masterpiece that chilled me to the bone.

I had not planned to post this, but after (finally!) seeing The White Ribbon yesterday I couldn’t help it, just had to pen my thoughts. This is not a synopsis, just personal impressions that may not make all that much sense unless you’ve actually seen the film. But perhaps they will make you want to see it…

I’ve not seen any film by Michael Haneke before, but if they’re all like this one, I’m a fan. Masterfully directed and acted. Outstanding photography, black-and-white images which, just like the complete lack of music, were a perfect fit to the psychological (f)rigidity of the people. A completely different pace from what we are used to these days. Slow, sometimes very slow, but not a single second without anything “happening” or with “just visuals” was just that; every one of those moments had a meaning and conveyed a message.

The adults were so unbelievably cold to their children. I felt frozen inside, sometimes wanted to shout “come on, show a sign of affection, hold your child, acknowledge the love he shows you!” But it never, ever happened.

The only adults who were a little warmer were the midwife and perhaps the estate manager’s wife – and the teacher and his Eva, but then she was almost still a child herself, and he not only looked but really seemed younger than his 31 years – and even at 31 he was a lot younger than all the other adults. He and Eva, they were a ray of sunshine and genuine warmth, warmth one craved for and lapped up hungrily in this atmosphere of psycho-cruelty.

The children…  The much-quoted resemblance to Village of the Damned is obvious without being a copy, because the danger emanating from them was human, not alien. I am tempted to say that when they were chilling, they had good reason to be that way. They didn’t know anything else from their parents.

*SPOILER ALERT* All the more touching to see the loving kindness in the doctor’s daughter – a love that was tinged with so much sadness when she looked at her little brother, and that took such a shocking twist when the true nature of her relationship with her father was revealed. *END SPOILER ALERT*

And yet, underneath all this rigor, the plaited or plastered hair and buttoned-up dresses or shirts, these children were not so very different from “modern” children. Underneath it all, they showed the same fears and yearnings and rebellious traits as children of today. They just channelled these feelings differently.

The characters, all of them, adults and children, were at the same time so foreign and so authentic, so genuine and convincing. Outstanding performances by all, absolutely all of the actors. How on earth did they prepare for their parts? This film shows a time that is not so very far away and yet feels so much more distant from our modern thinking and feeling than say, the Middle Ages or the future – as we see them in movies or read about them in books. At least I feel that way.

Does this film “explain” Germany and Germans at the beginning of the 20th century? Perhaps it offers some help in understanding them, but for me that is not the real importance or impact of this film. Perhaps that’s because I am German and have had my share of German history studies.

I must admit, though, I felt weird when I saw the doctor’s house, which looks almost identical to that of my grandmother in Northern Germany, and the priest’s study, which reminded me so much of that of my grandfather, who was also a priest. Both were born around 1905, i.e. were as old as the children in this film. I wonder what their childhood was like. It is too late to ask them, they’re both dead; and I wonder what they would’ve told me. Whether they would have been like the “unreliable narrator”, as Philip French calls the teacher in his review in the Guardian . I am just glad they turned out to be warm and kind people.

I can’t believe that within a week I saw two films that could not be more different – Avatar and The White Ribbon – and was blown away by both in equal measure but in completely different ways.

And so I end this rambling spill of a post.

Okay, the next post really will be about “The Amphibian Film – a Teutonic Speciality?”

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French and German Perspectives on Eric Rohmer

Much has been written in the past week to commemorate the great French filmmaker Eric Rohmer. Theauteurs.com offers an amazing compilation of UK and US voices, the bulk of which remember Rohmer as the intellectual among the Nouvelle Vague proponents, a man of paradoxes (“the modern classicist calmly dissecting desire”) and the filmmaker who made adult conversation cinematic. This latter claim of course is not uncontested – or as Gene Hackman quips in the film Night Moves: “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.” 

I was curious to see whether French and German tributes might show a (stereo-)typical focus on different aspects of his oeuvre. My research turned out to be a little limited by the fact that many of the French and German publications I tried were subscriber-only, but I still found some interesting articles – here’s the gist of it. 

France

Le Monde , in language recalling the flowery description on French wine labels, praises Rohmer’s films as having a “spiritual subtlety, a flavour of impertinence and freedom” and the “total erotisation of language resulting from a physical magnetism that is imbued with the postponement of morals” (this was just too tempting not to translate quite literally).

Le Figaro stays a little more sober, saying that Rohmer’s art lay in analysing a state, a condition, by describing a situation. He always looked at the relationship man-woman from a POV of absurdity and necessity; his characters, so the Figaro article, were “moralists, aesthetes who served to show perversity”.

The e-zine Gonzaï features a much more engaging tribute. A writer by the pseudonym of Lidell offers a very personal view of Rohmer’s films, recalling how all through adolescence she and her friends attempted to copy his female characters. She claims that Rohmer invented a new type, the beautiful and graceful young woman with an iron will. Lidell also writes at length about how Rohmer’s “gang” writing for the famous Cahiers de cinema elevated film criticism to new heights and at the same time established film as a proper art form, claiming that filmmakers, like composers, could create new styles and even start a new epoch.

The most interesting result of my French research was a short interview with Jean-Louis Trintignant about working with Rohmer in My Night with Maud. Trintignant, an actor who likes to improvise, was shocked when he saw the script: dialogue of exquisite elegance was marred (in the actor’s view) by obnoxiously detailed instructions such as insertions of “er… er…”, and even commas were terribly important to Rohmer. Trintignant recalls complaining that this was impossible for an actor to read such dialogue, but Rohmer urged him to try – and Trintignant confesses to having been most surprised to find that it was not only wonderfully easy, but even the only way to read the dialogue exactly as written.

Germany

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung  features two different articles by the same author on the same day, offering a mixed picture of cerebral analysis and romantic rapture.

The rather more analytical print article calls Rohmer “the storyteller of modern life” who merged a neo-realistic view with the characterization of classic French theatre. Rohmer used the camera as an instrument of his curiosity and choreographed his images to perfection; his films, poor in scenery but rich in realities, depicted basic patterns of human actions.

In contrast, the online article calls Rohmer “the master of blissful moments”, saying that his characters both are driven by and shy away from their yearnings – “and in this we recognize ourselves with dream-like clarity”. The author even waxes lyrical: there was “a shimmer in Rohmer’s stories that passed on to the audience when the screen went black, creating an impression that his characters, with all their desires and idiosyncrasies, were sitting right next to you.”

I was a bit disappointed with the brevity of the obituary in my favourite German newspaper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung. The author calls Rohmer “A Strict Composer” who orchestrated “beautiful young girls doing beautiful stuff”. The article, like so many others, also touches on the paradox that Rohmer presented in his work: he employed self-reflection as a cinematic element and yet managed to leave an impression of profound sensuality.

Die Zeit, Germany’s most prominent weekly newspaper, again mixes romantic eulogy and brainy philosophical analysis in a very long article entitled “The Saviour of Passion in Cinema”. Focusing almost entirely on the theme of desire or passion, the author paints a complex picture of Rohmer’s notion of Love, or rather of the Discourse about Love. But what kind of love? His characters flutter from one to the next, freedom equals the inability to find Mr. (or Ms.) Right, emancipation and self-actualization scare away Eros. Yet  – says this article – the catholic Rohmer did find a solution for true modern love, and he found it in French history, in particular Pascalian philosophy. According to Die Zeit, it is only by understanding Rohmer’s love for Pascal can one understand Rohmer’s films and the hope expressed in his films: only those who believe in absolute love can achieve miracles, and only the combination of passion and reason can give direction to desire and change it to love – and that is why Rohmer’s films contain so much dialogue.

Post Scriptum

Me? I’m no expert on Rohmer. I have seen a few of his films and have found moments of absolute brilliance… if only one didn’t have to listen to all that talking while waiting for this brilliance to happen ;-).

Next week’s post will focus on “Amphibian Films” – and no, it’s not about documentaries on the disappearance of the poison dart frog from the Amazonian rainforest.

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