Entertainment as History Lessons
Surely we all have gone to a movie or play and those sending us off said: Have a good time! This year the Toronto International Film Festival had a few German movies that were well made, even great, however everything else but a good time. Instead they dwelled once again in the past, were most movies find their story lines; and since the German history is fraught with dramatic occurrences, there are endless stories to tell.
Volker Schloendorf’s "Ninth Day", which we reviewed in the last issue, this film about the making of a Judas, was a kaleidoscope of fascinating facets about human nature, but it took place during the 3rd Reich, even though mainly in Luxemburg. We had occasion to ask him why he made yet another film of that time and hoped to find a profound reason. Surprisingly the answer was quite mundane. He ran into a producer who showed him the script at a time when he had no project going on and suggested to make the film. The producer said he did not have more than half the budget, which was already ridiculously low, and Mr. Schloendorf said: "No matter, let’s make it for that budget." And they did, and the result shows that it is not a huge payroll that creates a good movie. A Master filmmaker like Schloendorf can make something unique out of very little.
We also wanted to know where he found all those skeletal people to play the inmates of the concentration camp. This answer was another surprise:" The lead was played be a Slovakian actor… there are a lot of people there that look that emaciated. Otherwise we hire AIDS patients."
And I guess they are inexpensive too…Regardless of this
disquieting information, the movie stands strong in the fairly large line up
of German films shown this year, most of them of a dark nature. Thank god
for Hollywood and the lighter touch of the muse when we need to restore our
The night we spoke to Volker Schloendorf in the Goethe Institute Toronto, at the pre gala party to the Film "Der Untergang", in English called "Downfall", the ‘Who is Who’ in culture, diplomacy and German Film was present, as well as a few hangers on and young and hungry reviewers trying to get a bite on something, anything. Every industry has its own pariahs.
Already before the curtain rose in the Roy Thomson Hall did we know that this was not going to be a pleasure, after all, we had seen the documentary "Blind Spot", the filmed interview with Hilter’s private secretary Traudl Junge. This new film was to be like the actual story as related by her as an action packed film. With brilliant Bruno Ganz as Hitler suffering from Parkinson’s disease, the film tried to explain what might have happened in those last days of Berlin.
From the very beginning of the movie where an unknown idiot felt it necessary to screech "Heil!" to the very last frame and the curtain falling, there was an eerie silence in the big hall, only interrupted by occasional sharp intakes of breath. I was thrown back to an Abitur essay in Germany entitled: "Is Applause or silence the better reward for an actor?" Here the appropriateness was correctly demonstrated. There was a long moment of silence. It was as though the audience had to come from a strange trip on the time track backwards and was returning to present time. A few deep breaths later the applause came, first halting and then confident, knowing that what was seen was very good work. Yes, it could have been like that, or very similar.
Did it matter that despite excellent costumes and scenery, make up and music, acting and directing, did it matter that we could not be sure if it really was like that? Did it matter that Hitler likely looked a lot worse than he was portrayed here by an immensely talented actor? Did it matter that we do not understand to this day the unhealthy fascination people had with this monumental individual? And why is that?
In Germany the movie was shown after this world premiere and the critics had a field day. Among them the sociologists and psychologists crawled all over this movie. A debate ensued how a monster could be portrayed as a partially humane person. And all of them are missing one point: There is enough good in the worst of us, and enough bad in the best of us,…As the saying goes.
There is not much to intellectualize. It does not matter whether the man was ill or well, and he was hardly ever well after he was misdiagnosed with hysterical blindness after a mustard gas attack during World War I. It is known that at any given time he was often on 13 different substances a day. Psychopharmacology held him together and destroyed what was left of any sort of sanity he might have possessed. (There was even a drug named after him: Adolphine.)
What matters not is the doctrine of Honour and Death, and Kitsch and Death, as was formulated in the wake of this movie, but the fact that everyone who was a player in Hitler’s circle had to somehow justify his/her actions and, like Hitler, who was not interested in taking any responsibility for his deeds, they also did not necessarily look forward to the aftermath of the long lost cause.
It is human nature to negate the truth after crimes or inhumane acts have been committed. In order to be right all sorts of reasons are invented as not to have to face the truth and possibly admit fear of what might happen to them if they stuck around. A few did and when caught took there own life or never admitted any wrong-doing at all. The responsibility was, according to Hitler, the German people’s and they had miserably failed him, betrayed him, were not worthy of the greatness he had envisioned and designed for them, thus they did not deserve to live. His most trusted officers, even Eva’s family members were declared traitors and treated as such when they did not agree or could not do what he had ordered. No one seems to have defined that even in a chain of command there is such a thing as "illegal orders", and what that is, and when to draw the line. In a society that largely operates on the premise that mankind is nothing more than a species of animal and part of one vast preordained scheme, called Vorsehung, the concept of responsibility cannot exist. There is no right or wrong as is defined in religious philosophies. There is just "the strong survive-the weak perish" law of nature, law of the animal world.
These theories, when dramatized as it is in this movie, from the personal observations and personal guilt of a secretary, a bit of imagination and cross-referencing, can be found to be lifelike conjectures.
Interesting to know is why these movies are still being made. Does the world have no other dark sides to offer, no other stories of oppression and delirium, no other stories of man’s inhumanity to man? The Russian history is full of bloody Mother Russia tales of horror. Even closer to our times there are countless stories of oppression and betrayal. As a matter of fact the European filmmakers had a panel discussion about this very subject. They were wondering if the recent history of terrorism will change the film landscape in any way. So far the indications are dark, dark movies, regardless of land of origin dominate the film industry in Europe. The underside of the human belly holds much fascination.
One such movie also came form Austria. There too exists among filmmakers the obsession with observing life and presenting it so starkly that nothing needs to be explained. Each picture frame speaks a thousand words, and in the case of Antares it starts with the many pictures of having sex, sex and having more sex. This certainly is a mirror of society, and even though this film was set in a large settlement of high-rises in Vienna, it could have been right here, perhaps in Jamestown, Toronto. There are all together 3 stories that are separate but somehow intertwined. Violence, jealously, delusions, preoccupations with what cannot be obtained, may it be a woman, sex, a car, a house, all the motions of life, yet they are lifeless. People live next to each other, not with each other.
It is a little hard to determine why such a story needs to be told as a film - if all one has to do is step outside and look. Ordinary life, dull, hopeless, without real aim and purpose, not worth emulating happens all around us and is not something most of us need to see in a film, or so I thought. But there are other schools of thinking. To me it is just not quite clear if this thing about art imitating life, and life imitating art is not just an overblown justification for the purpose of rhetoric and in the end simply nothing but a cliché. If films are to bring about some realization we have to ask: which ones and in whom? Those that need to realize that there is something wrong with their lives are not prone to go see movies like this and if they do, they probably do not even recognize themselves in such a film, or understand the poor quality of their lives. They might just think, like one guy next to me in the cinema, who said: Yap, that’s my life, could be here. I knew there was nothing wrong with it!
A German film called Hotel has a bit more to offer in the way of suspense and a story line that does not reveal itself prematurely.
There were many German entries this year, and surely some of them will turn up over the year for regular scheduled showings, just like last year’s Weaping Camel did, or Margarethe von Trotta’s Rosenstrasse, which disappointingly fizzled out.
Certainly not all films were downers, but many fall into this category, which we will continue to expect from some European countries more than from others. Some will be history lessons and others will just be history.
Until next time
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