Tag Archives: German Cinema

A Krimi-Giallo Hybrid: What Have You Done to Solange?

Solange 2
What Have You Done to Solange?

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 14 December 2015

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Massimo Dallamano

Writers: Bruno Di Geronimo, Massimo Dallamano

Original title: Cosa avete fatto a Solange?

Cast: Fabio Testi, Cristina Galbó, Karin Baal, Joachim Fuchsberger

Italy, Germany 1972

107 mins

Massimo Dallamano’s Catholic girls’ school psycho-sexual thriller combines elements of German and Italian genre cinemas.

A German-Italian co-production, Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange? is one of several films intended to bridge the gap between the West German Edgar Wallace krimi and the Italian gialli. The relationship between the two subgenres dates back to the late 1960s, when gialli like Antonio Margheriti’s Naked You Die! (1968) were released in Germany in black and white (despite being shot in colour) to resemble the classic Wallace krimi in appearance. At the same time Rialto Film, the primary producer of the Wallace films, were trying to find ways of revitalizing their formula, in response to declining popularity. Their first attempt, Double Face (1968), was certainly equipped for lasting cult appeal, being directed by Italian horror legend Riccardo Freda and co-written by the future ‘godfather of gore’ Lucio Fulci. It also starred Klaus Kinski in a rare leading role, as well as a number of Euro-horror veterans, including Gunther Stoll, Margaret Lee and Annabella Incontrera. Unfortunately, Freda’s star had waned by that point, and despite the efforts of the cast, Double Face is bland and uninvolving.

The film’s commercial failure doused Rialto’s interest in further ventures, and the matter might have rested there, were it not for Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. One of the big European box office hits of 1970, Argento’s debut feature sparked off a wave of similar thrillers, bringing the giallo firmly into the mainstream. In Germany The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was distributed by Artur Brauner’s Central Cinema Company (a.k.a. CCC Films), Rialto’s main competitor in the field of the Wallace krimi. Brauner added a spurious credit to German prints of the film, claiming it was based upon a story by Bryan Edgar Wallace, the son of the famous author whose own works had been adapted by CCC Films. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was then marketed to German audiences as an authentic krimi.

Having noticed the film’s impressive box office takings, Rialto decided to attempt another krimi-giallo crossover. Although most of the technical aspects of What Have You Done to Solange? were left to the discretion of the Italian crew, Rialto made a number of changes to bring the film closer to their previous Wallace krimi, including setting the film in London. The main detective would be played by Joachim Fuchsberger, Rialto’s most popular leading man, while the German wife would be played by Karin Baal, the star of two earlier Wallace films, including The Dead Eyes of London (1961), arguably the finest example of the form. A single line of dialogue was added to justify the appropriation of the title of a genuine Edgar Wallace story for the film’s German title (The Clue of the Green Pin), despite the two stories having absolutely nothing in common.

Enrico Rosseni (played by Fabio Testi, best known for his role in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis) teaches Italian and gymnastics at a prestigious Catholic school in London. Even though his severe German wife Herta (Karin Baal) teaches at the school as well, Enrico is having an affair with one of his students, Elizabeth Seccles (Christina Galbó, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue). During one of their meetings, Elizabeth sees a young girl and the flash of a knife, but Enrico angrily dismisses her claim. The following day a girl’s body is discovered in the same location, with the victim another student of the school. Even though Elizabeth is a key witness, Enrico discourages her from contacting the police because of his marriage. When another student is murdered, Enrico realizes that Elizabeth is not just a witness, but a key figure in the events unfolding and a potential victim too.

Despite its hybrid origins, What Have You Done to Solange? is very much a classic example of the 1970s giallo. As usual, the police are present but take a backseat role to the hero’s amateur investigations. Although Enrico himself is not a witness to the crimes like his counterpart in Dario Argento’s thrillers, his girlfriend Elizabeth is, and she experiences the same confusion and progressive revelations as the heroes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red (1976). The killer is visible only as a pair of black-gloved hands, although we hear his voice. His motivations are a little more complex. Instead of being a witness to, or a victim of, a traumatic event, he’s taking revenge on behalf of that victim. The incident itself is one of the most unpleasant of its kind and certainly effective, but would perhaps be more appropriate for a Roman Catholic country; the United Kingdom’s laws on the subject make such events largely unnecessary (a similar point applies to Elizabeth’s age; in Italy she would have been over the age of consent). The brutal and sexualised nature of the killings (and their motivation) is sharply at odds with the standards of the Wallace krimi, which rarely featured graphic violence and generally couched any sexual content in a light-hearted tone.

By technical standards, What Have You Done to Solange? is exceptional, especially the cinematography. Although best known as a producer of notorious splatter movies (including the excellent Beyond the Darkness) and hardcore pornography, Aristide Massacessi (a.k.a. Joe D’Amato) is a skilled cinematographer whose framing and shot composition are consistently solid. Director Dallamano is a capable cinematographer himself, having worked on A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For A Few Dollars More (1965) before moving into direction. Together Dallamano and Massacessi create a stylish, visually interesting film, with a number of memorable and eye-catching moments. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone provided the scores to more than a dozen gialli in the early 1970s, including Argento’s early thrillers. His work on What Have You Done to Solange? relies on many of the same motifs and themes that characterise his other giallo scores: angular, discordant bass figures; wordless child-like singing; high-pitched, screeching strings. Despite this, it’s a strong enough score, and certain passages correspond well to the images they accompany.

Although Dallamano is happy to kill off the girls in a brutal fashion and use them to provide the film’s plentiful nudity, there is something sad about his portrayal of these young women. They are essentially adrift in the world. Their parents are generally absent from the film and when they do appear, they present a rose-tinted, idealised view of their children that shows no awareness of their growing physical and mental maturity. Their Catholic upbringing provides them with plenty of rules and admonitions against sin but offers them no help with their predicament whatsoever. The other adults in their lives are equally hopeless. Their teachers (aside from the priests) include a lecherous hypocrite who ascribes to them every kind of sexual vice but spies on them in the showers. Even Enrico, the one teacher who takes their side in disputes with the school, is having an affair with a girl not yet halfway through her teenage years, and is not above pressurizing his lover to give in to his sexual demands. With no guidance except their own instincts, the girls drift into the clutches of perverts, sleazy photographers and backstreet abortionists.

The execution and genre mechanics make What Have You Done to Solange? an excellent example of its kind, but it possesses an emotional resonance that lifts it above the majority of its contemporaries. It is not a flawless film; Inspector Barth’s assertion that showing the teachers graphic crime scene photos is a ‘necessary formality’ is ridiculous and grotesque, while Enrico’s sudden change of heart is poorly handled and does the character no favours (indeed, none of the film’s characters are anything other than one-dimensional). Despite its shortcomings, What Have You Done to Solange? is a first-rate giallo that deserves this new restoration.

Watch the trailer:

Jim Harper

Frog Masks and Blind Killers: The Edgar Wallace Films

The Death Eyes of London
The Dead Eyes of London

Before the release of recent international hits like Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt, 1998), Good Bye Lenin! (2003) and Downfall (Der Untergang, 2004), much of the attention post-war German cinema had received had been directed towards art-house favourites such as Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. However, from the mid-1950s to the late 70s, West Germany had a thriving and popular movie industry, producing a seemingly endless wave of pop-culture films, from so-called ‘Sauerkraut Westerns’ to an impressively large number of soft-core sex comedies and pseudo-documentaries, including the notorious Schoolgirl Report (Schulmädchen-Report, 1970-1980) series.

Author Jim Harper talks about Shadows and Fog: The Forgotten History of the German Edgar Wallace Krimi on 12 November 2015 at the Horse Hospital. Tickets are on sale now, book online.

Perhaps the finest of all these German genres and sub-genres was the Krimi (short for Kriminalfilm), a lucrative, highly entertaining series of crime thrillers that dominated the domestic box-office from 1959 until 1972. In that 13-year span, more than 50 Krimis were produced, with 11 released in 1963 alone – almost one a month. The majority of them were produced by just one company, the Danish-German production house Rialto. From the start, Rialto relied upon a stock ensemble of German actors, some of whom would appear in dozens of these films and quickly become A-list German celebrities – among them, the young but ambitious Klaus Kinski, for whom the Krimis became the first step towards international stardom.

The crime thrillers produced during the 60s and early 70s were primarily inspired by the works of a single author, English mystery writer Edgar Wallace. As well as providing the script for the classic King Kong (1933), Wallace wrote hundreds of novels, short stories and plays – many of them adapted for the big screen – eventually becoming one of most successful authors of his day. Although his fame declined elsewhere after his death in 1932, he remained an exceptionally popular figure in Germany, his works kept alive in the 1950s by made-for-TV productions and stage performances. The success of these led Rialto boss Constantin Preben Philipsen to begin producing a series of big-screen Wallace adaptations, starting with The Fellowship of the Frog (Der Frosch mit der Maske) in 1959, based on the novel of the same title. When the film became a box-office smash, two more Krimis were rushed into production, The Red Circle (Der rote Kreis) and The Terrible People (Die Bande des Schreckens), both released in 1960. That year also saw the release of The Avenger (Der Rächer), an independently produced Wallace adaptation. Threats of legal action from Rialto put paid to any more of these, but CCC (Central Cinema Company, Rialto’s main competition in the genre) pressed ahead with their own Krimis, most of which were based on stories written by Wallace’s son, Bryan Edgar Wallace, or by lesser-known writers such as Francis Durbridge.

Watch the German trailer for Der Frosch mit der Maske:

These four films established the pattern for most of the subsequent Krimis, including cast, characters, locations and plotlines. Typically the films star either Joachim Fuchsberger or Heinz Drache as a dashing young detective – private or official – matching wits against a criminal mastermind responsible for a wave of murders, robberies or blackmail attempts. Known by a nickname such as ‘The Frog’, ‘The Shark’, ‘The Magician’ or ‘The Laughing Corpse’, the villains usually wear a costume or disguise that varies from the unlikely – in The Mysterious Magician (Der Hexer, 1964), the criminal puts on a facemask and becomes the spitting image of a cop, right down to the voice (!) – to the ludicrous – ‘The Frog’ wears a cape, elbow-length rubber gloves (all in green of course) and a fencing mask with what appears to be two ping-pong balls glued to the front. Naturally, the climax usually features a grand unveiling, in which the villain is revealed to be one of the film’s least threatening characters. In many respects, the villain is the polar opposite of the detective hunting him down. Unlike the exciting, youthful heroes, the villains are usually stuffy, older men, stuck in boring but respectable jobs, with solicitors, office managers or clergymen being the most common. On several occasions they harbour a secret romantic desire for the main female character, but are pushed aside quickly when the dashing young hero arrives on the scene. Such films typically end with the villain kidnapping the girl, allowing the hero to come to her rescue. There are exceptions: The Door with the Seven Locks (Die Tür mit den 7 Schlössern, 1962) features a mad scientist trying to sew a man’s head on to a gorilla’s body in a bizarre parody of Nazi scientific experiments.

Equally as important are the supporting characters, who were just as popular as the leads; even more so in some cases, since the villain was generally played by a different actor each time, whereas the lesser characters were almost always played by the same handful of actors. One of the most famous supporting actors was undoubtedly Klaus Kinski, who made his first appearance in a Krimi playing an ill-fated small-time crook in the independent hit The Avenger. After the success of The Avenger, Rialto quickly put Kinski on their payroll, along with his co-stars Heinz Drache and Siegfried Schürenberg. He would go on to appear in a further 20 similar films, almost always as a minor criminal – often a safe-breaker, blackmailer or smuggler – destined to die long before the end credits roll, killed off by much more important villains. Arguably, his best Krimi performance was in 1962’s The Inn on the River (Das Gasthaus an der Themse), in which he plays a slimy black market trader, looking truly unpleasant in a dirty white suit, a panama hat and in desperate need of a shave. Ironically, it’s also the only time Kinski plays one of the good guys: he’s a brilliant undercover cop trying to crack a smuggling ring led by the mysterious ‘Shark’.

Watch the German trailer for Das Gasthaus an der Themse:

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the Krimis was their location. With a handful of exceptions – including a lonely Scottish castle and a Spanish holiday resort – the majority of them were set in London. Few of the films were actually shot in England, however, with the streets of Hamburg and Munich filling in for Whitechapel and Soho, while Denmark and the Schleswig-Holstein region doubled for the Home Counties. This somewhat shaky illusion was complemented by oft-repeated stock footage of double-decker buses in Piccadilly Square and bowler-hatted businessmen crossing Westminster Bridge, not to mention numerous portraits of the Queen on office walls. Needless to say, the London of the Edgar Wallace films bears little similarity to the real city, and occasionally sports hilariously surreal touches. The most bizarre of these can be found in the final scene of The Inn on the River, where two characters stand on the south bank of the Thames, with cargo ships going by and the Oxford-Cambridge boat race taking place in the foreground! Not quite so over the top are the omnipresent telephone boxes (even in forests and on wharfs), the striking Rhineland castles just a few miles from London and the decidedly continental strip-clubs and jazz bars.

Influenced by 1940s film noir, the majority of the Edgar Wallace films were shot in black and white, with Rialto only making the change to colour in 1966 with The Hunchback of Soho (Der Bucklige von Soho). Although the quality declined with the advent of colour, the best of the Krimis boast stylish, atmospheric black and white cinematography that rivals anything produced by Hollywood during the period. Much of this was due to the partnership of Alfred Vohrer, the most prolific of the Kriminalfilm directors, and his regular collaborator, Karl Löb, a veteran cinematographer who served his apprenticeship in the 1930s and had recently worked on Fritz Lang’s final film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (Die 1000 Augen des Dr Mabuse, 1960). Together, the pair created a distinctive double world for the Krimis, with the first a stereotypically English London: stately homes, blue-blooded aristocracy, double-decker buses and the Houses of Parliament. Beneath that is the other London, a dark underworld of sleazy bars and clubs, shady-looking characters and a wealth of vice, violence and crime. The first London is populated by pretty young girls and respectable men in suits; in the other, most of the men bear scars or some form of disfigurement, and the women are a little older and wear too much make-up. This contrast is reflected in Löb’s cinematography: scenes in the above-ground London are generally brightly lit and shot in sunshine, while in the underworld it always seems to be night, and even the interiors are dark and dimly lit.

Watch the German trailer for Die Toten Augen von London:

Vohrer and Löb made their auspicious debut in 1961 with The Dead Eyes of London (Die Toten Augen von London), a film widely considered to be the finest Edgar Wallace production ever made, and perhaps the closest the form ever came to genuine horror. Based on a Wallace story that had already been adapted as The Dark Eyes of London (1939) with Bela Lugosi, the German version stars Joachim Fuchsberger as a Scotland Yard detective trying to solve a wave of murders committed by a gang of blind criminals as part of a life insurance scam. The victims are all short-sighted, rich businessmen drawn into the fog-bound rabbit warren of the London back streets – where the blind killers have the advantage – and subsequently drowned. Vohrer and Löb exploit the horrific potential of the material to the hilt, painting a portrait of London as a city of perpetual fog and darkness, where the shadows are deep enough to hide a monster in – even a monster the size of ‘Blind Jack’, an enormous creature played by Ady Berber. In the 1940s and 50s Berber had been a professional wrestler, before retiring and moving into films, where his hulking frame and lopsided grin made him an ideal monster. Berber appeared in several Edgar Wallace films, and his roles are among the most morally complex in the entire genre. Although he sometimes behaves like a monster, he is always depicted as being mentally disabled, and is often abused or manipulated by the villains, which makes him a more sympathetic character than the majority of the criminals. In The Dead Eyes of London, Blind Jack is only a minion, being controlled by a man who poses as a priest running a home for the blind. His tenants are being bullied into carrying out his schemes under threat of death. Wallace Krimis often feature low-level crooks in similar positions, who frequently end up as victims before they can ‘do the right thing’ and inform the police. In contrast, the main villains are ruthless and greedy, without a shred of decency or compassion.

Still a criminally (no pun intended) overlooked strand of European cult cinema, the Edgar Wallace Krimis deserve to be rediscovered, and this may be helped by the handful of ground-breaking articles written on the subject, not to mention a series of recent, high-profile German DVD releases, some of them with English subtitles and audio tracks, which will allow international audiences to sample the considerable pleasures to be found in these exceptional films.

This article was first published in the Winter 09 print issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.

Jim Harper

Stevan Alcock is not Veronika Voss

Veronika Voss

Stevan Alcock is a writer, editor and translator. Originally from Yorkshire, he lived in Berlin for many years, before returning to England to study for a BA in German, and an MA on contemporary prose fiction. His debut novel, Blood Relatives (4th Estate), set in 1970s Leeds, is a dark, daring, funny coming-of-age story, vibrant with family secrets and hidden identities, punk and gay liberation, all overshadowed by the horror of the Yorkshire ripper. He is fascinated by Rosel Zech as the butterfly-like Veronika Voss. Eithne Farry

When I first saw Fassbinder’s Veronika Voss in 1982, I had been living in Berlin for nearly 18 months. I was captivated by Rosel Zech as the washed-up eponymous film star, just as Robert, the reporter in the film who chances upon her in a bar, is also captivated by her residual beauty.

Shot in black and white, the film is set is in the mid-50s. Veronika reminisces to Robert of a time before the war, when her fame shone brightly; but in the new post-war West Germany she is all but forgotten, broke and drug-dependent. An echo, surely, of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.

Robert visits Veronika at her villa, where the furniture is covered with white sheets, with candles everywhere as the electricity has been disconnected, although she tells him – and herself – that the candles are there ‘because they are so much more flattering to a woman.’

Veronika is a patient of the nasty and parasitic Dr Katz and her accomplices, who keep Veronika dependent on morphine, take possession of her will and drain her of her wealth until she has nothing left. Their clinic is all clean white and glass; indeed, the other patients wait behind walls of glass. The clinic could be seen as an allegory of the chilling, clean aesthetic of the new West Germany.

Zech plays Veronika Voss with compelling melodramatic tragedy, subsisting on the self-delusion of a past grandeur that was in fact Nazi Germany. She brings a luminosity and depth to what is, frankly, a shaky and porous plot.

Robert uncovers the truth behind the façade of the clinic and, assisted by his journalist sidekick Henriette, they seek to rescue Veronika. But it goes wrong: Henriette is killed and Veronika, trapped by her dependency like a pinned butterfly, is abandoned by the quack doctors. Without morphine, Veronika takes an overdose of sleeping pills and is found dead a few days later.

Fassbinder’s films often featured the mannered and decadent in moments of decline. His characters are caught up in their own obsessions and self-delusional needs; they echo our own fears. Fassbinder himself was often terrified of failing utterly.

Zech claimed it was a mystical experience working with Fassbinder: ‘He was giving something away all the time,’ she said, ‘you felt loved and cherished’.

Veronika Voss won the Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear award in 1982. Fassbinder’s death shortly afterwards – like Zech’s character, from an overdose – was a blow to Zech, who had envisaged further collaborations. Instead, she retreated into lesser roles on German television and never again hit the heights she had achieved with Fassbinder and Veronika Voss. Zech’s name became so synonymous with the film that she found herself frequently reminding people, ‘I am not Veronika Voss’.

Stevan Alcock

Oh Boy: Interview with Jan Ole Gerster

Oh Boy
Oh Boy

Format: Cinema

Release date: 17 January 2014

Distributor: ICA Cinema

Director: Jan Ole Gerster

Writer: Jan Ole Gerster

Cast: Tom Schilling, Katharina Schüttler, Justus von Dohnáyi

Germany 2012

83 mins

Best Film Director. Best Actor. Best First Film. Best Screenplay. Best European Film of 2013. After a gruelling 18 months on the festival circuit, German director Jan Ole Gerster’s first feature film Oh Boy is about to have a limited theatrical release in the UK, and as can be discerned it arrives with a bucketful of accolades including both critics and audience awards – rarely one and the same!

Oh Boy takes a wry look at a young man, Niko Fischer (impressively played by Tom Schilling) as he traverses Berlin – a Berlin of alienated people and locations not usually seen in the tourist brochures. He is an unemployed law student hailing from a wealthy family although, as the audience learn, his father is about to cut off his allowance, having discovered that his son has not actually attended classes in two years. He says he has been ‘thinking’. Now with no means of support, this Candide-like figure drinks and drifts across Berlin in the company of an actor friend. The pair find themselves in a variety of slightly surreal and absurd situations, resulting in a beautifully paced – and performed – cinematic text containing a reflective and moving series of vignettes that add up to an impressive and very confident first film.

It took a bold and assured directorial hand by novice filmmaker Gerster (who wrote the excellent screenplay as well) to decide on the visual style – it was remarkably shot in black and white – and to rein in the plot progression in order to allow generous amounts of shooting time for the story to unfold. His choice of lead actor, Tom Schilling, is an inspired one and Schilling turns in a remarkable performance as he makes the character sympathetic and charming while subtly hinting at his existential dilemmas. Even the opening scene is excellently judged as our (anti-)hero starts his day by rising from a bed shared with his girlfriend, from whom he is about to separate. A scene ensues between the two and as the camera focuses on this guilt-ridden and uncertain lone figure sitting at the end of the bed, the title, Oh Boy slyly appears on the screen, over-writing the shot. Then the credits roll as we begin our long day’s journey into the night.

James Evans talked to Jan Ole Gerster about the director’s interest in distanced characters, making a road movie inside Berlin, and looking for that timeless feeling.

James Evans: How did your screenplay come about – what impelled you to want to make a youth culture film about contemporary Berlin?

Jan Ole Gerster: I wasn’t thinking about making a ‘youth culture’ film, or a portrait of our generation or a portrait of our time or young people in Berlin because I think that this is the wrong intention to start out with. I had this character in mind that was somehow inspired by all the characters I always identified with in literature and films. I found it appealing to have a character who does nothing, who is very passive and still, but is wide awake and noticing things, and I thought it would be interesting to send him on a road trip without really leaving Berlin.

Your choice of visual style and the interesting and fitting use of black and white – was a gamble and, unlike some recent examples, did not seem to be gratuitous, modish or a ‘knowing’ visual gimmick. How did that decision come about?

I was afraid that it was going to be, as you said, received as a youth culture film or some sort of generational portrait that claimed to speak for how 20-somethings feel these days, but I was trying to do the opposite. I was trying to find a timeless atmosphere for the film and so every decision that I made, whether we were looking for locations or the visual style or even the music, was about finding that timeless feeling. I didn’t want electronic music, I didn’t want colour, I didn’t want super-modern architecture. It was important to me because there’s something old-fashioned about this character as well because he doesn’t seem to connect to the world he’s living in. He is distanced and alienated, and black and white provided this sense of distance that I was looking for. Of course, I am depressed that black and white has disappeared from the screen these days, but as you mention there seems to be a bit of a revival of it.

Watch the trailer:

The cast is very strong and Tom Schilling in particular is an inspired choice. He turns in a nuanced, balanced and finely honed performance and you give him and the other characters generous amounts of screen time to inhabit these characters. How did you cast him?

He was a friend…Well, he is still a really good friend of at least 13 years. We lived in the same neighbourhood and we hung out. We had the same interests and the same sense of humour, and we would go out and see films, and drink together and talk about life and work and the films that he is working on. So when I wrote the first draft of Oh Boy I sent it to him and he called me and said ‘Yeah, I like it, I’m gonna play that part – it would be an honour’. And I was pleased about this, but I said, you know it’s not really an offer, I just wanted to hear what you thought of it (laughs). But then he kept calling me and saying that he would be perfect for the part…And to be honest, the only reason I didn’t think of him was because I envisioned the character to be in his late 20s, and he looks about 20 but in the ensuing year he was smoking a lot, drinking a lot and then he became a father and something happened – he aged a lot in that time! I really think that it just took a lot of time to get used to the idea of working with a friend and of course I don’t regret it, it was the best decision of the whole process.

There are some discernable cinematic and literary chromosomes in the DNA of your film. I feel the spirits of Truffaut, Wenders, Salinger, Ashby, Cassavetes inhabit it. But I especially sensed Rafelson, and in particular his masterpiece Five Easy Pieces.

This is very interesting, you’re the only one who has mentioned Five Easy Pieces, and it was a film that I had in mind. People ask me if I had Manhattan in mind, but of course I wasn’t thinking about Woody Allen at all. I had Truffaut in mind and I watched Five Easy Pieces with Tom [Schilling] many times and we talked about this film a lot in preparing for our journey. I have just been re-watching all the films that I admire like The 400 Blows and Who’s That Knocking at My Door, which is a super personal film about growing up in a Catholic family among American Italians and in a gangster environment, and it is incredible because the whole Scorcese universe is in that first film. And it’s the same with the Jarmusch and Cassavetes films. So I thought there’s the key to finding your own handwriting – you have to talk about something that you really know and that you want to express – no matter what it is. And you’re right, it was more the spirit of these guys that inspired me than trying to be like them.

One question remains: what next? With all the road showing of the film, have you had any time to write?

Yes, I had a scholarship last year to spend three month in Los Angeles at a residence called Villa Aurora, which is funded by the German consulate and the Goethe Institute, and I’m going to Rome on a similar thing for two months, so I’m writing something new and enjoying it. After almost 5 years living with Oh Boy, I’m really ready to move on and do something else. It’s fun and it’s tough at the same time because, not being a full-time writer – I have only written one script – I don’t really have a routine, and it takes time to figure things out. I am not a fast writer and not a very patient person so it is torturing me a bit.

I guess there are now new pressures because presumably you can more easily attract higher amounts of money this time and there are high expectations for the dreaded second film after such fanfare for the first.

Maybe I should just do a high-budget flop next time!

Interview by James B. Evans

‘M’ Marks the Spot: Murder, Metropolis, Mabuse

Dr. Mabuse the Gambler
Dr Mabuse, the Gambler

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 28 October 2013

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Fritz Lang

Writers: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou

Based on the novel by: Norbert Jacques

Cast: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Aud Egede-Nissen, Gertrude Welcker

Original title: Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler

Germany 1922

242 mins

‘M’ marks the spot: Murder, Metropolis, Mabuse. At the heart of Fritz Lang’s most innovative period, from 1922 to 1933, lies a fascination with metropolitan modernity and the ambivalence of mass phenomena. On the one hand, in M (1931), the sheer number of milling souls amounts to a sort of chaos into which a child murderer can easily disappear, until a capital ‘M’ chalked on his back puts him back on the map. Yet the city is also, as in Metropolis (1927), a vast machine in which individuals are mere cogs, and chaos may only be an appearance generated by the limited point of view of each cog. Mabuse above all names the spectre of someone who has grasped the laws of this ordered chaos, but who has no desire to rule, only to play, to show how thoroughly the everyday can be simulated and controlled.

Rather like cinema itself, Mabuse is a force that links disparate scenes with precision timing. What can connect a man feigning sleep in a train compartment with a chauffeur standing by his car in a country lane in Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922)? Rhyming close-ups of their respective watches point back to Mabuse at his desk. The rail traveller leaps up to steal his fellow passenger’s briefcase and throws it out of the window just as the train crosses a bridge, and just as his colleague’s car passes underneath. A toot on a horn from the chauffeur, and a brisk cut to an engineer atop a telegraph pole: Mabuse knows the deed is done almost to the second. The very efficiency and order of modern transport and telecommunications have been turned against themselves, and film, the cannibal of modernity, is in its element. The secret trade contract in the stolen briefcase, Mabuse ordains, will be ‘found’ again in exactly 30 minutes. Cut to the Stock Exchange. Amid the panic caused by falling shares, a glossy moustachioed figure mounts a table, impassive above the throng, buying when everyone else sells, then selling at the top. At close of trading, over the paper-strewn empty space, the giant, superimposed, Cheshire-cat head of the rogue trader looms, before melting into the face of – Mabuse.

Dr. Mabuse the Gambler1
Dr Mabuse, the Gambler

But behind even Mabuse there is another face, which has loomed over the Stock Exchange from the very start of the scene, a vast luminous clock with the 24 hours picked out in a single dial. Ideally, it ought to stand as the patron deity of orderly commerce, a monumental display of reliable regularity. But time itself is indifferent, available for whosoever cares to master it. This is the first of a series of remarkable clocks punctuating the film. Before we see the lobby of the Hotel Excelsior, its 24-hour clock, with Arabic and Roman numerals in concentric circles, fills the screen. Again, what is meant as a sign of affluence and security is actually the sign that Mabuse is at work. Vast as they are, these clocks are not out of keeping with the great majority of the film’s interiors. For a nation in the grip of economic disaster, Germany seems to be composed of cavernous chambers full of oddly lit planes and alcoves like some expressionist-cum-art deco hallucination. From spivvy casinos run by war profiteers, to hotel suites and private residences, there is nothing resembling a comfortable domestic space here. This is a world of gigantic imposture and in many ways Mabuse is merely an extrapolation of its logic. At any rate, dwarfed by an architecture meant to represent their own grandeur, the effete aristocrats of 1922 are easy pickings. It is hard to feel too much sympathy for the limp Count von Told as, under the spell of Mabuse, his impressive collection of ethnic fright masks turns against him. Mabuse is not above murder, but inducing suicide is more worthy of his talents. Having invited his future destroyer into his home, von Told asks him what he thinks of expressionism. ‘Spielerei,’ replies Mabuse: everything is game-playing these days. A languid aristo who dabbles insipidly in representations of extreme psychological states is fair game.

The Testament of Dr Mabuse
The Testament of Dr Mabuse

When Mabuse returns in The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), he is confined to an insane asylum, but being a spectre anyway, has no difficulty spreading the word. He acts only as a voice from behind a curtain in a basement room whose walls bear the outlines of decommissioned urinals, but the goal of anarchy for the hell of it is more insistent than ever. That his empire was crushed by a mere shoot-out in the first film was due to the urbane amateurism of State Prosecutor von Wenk. This time, he has a different sort of adversary in beefy police inspector sensuel moyen Lohmann, fresh from tracking down Peter Lorre in M.

The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Box Set is out on DVD in the UK as part of Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema Series.

The forces of order are, in other words, a little more professional, more bourgeois. Likewise the decor is more in keeping with Germany’s parlous state. Indeed, one could say desks are the heroes of the piece. Beautifully composed workspaces litter the film, filling the screen like still lifes. A pane of glass bearing enigmatic scratch marks is the object of a number of wonderful compositions before they are finally deciphered as spelling ‘Mabuse’. Later, as the tide turns, Lohmann shows one of Mabuse’s captured associates the evidence: two bullets in a little case are set against a beautiful composition of file and gun, all crisscrossing at 45 degrees. As the crim looks on, an oblong magnifying glass glides into view, perfectly covering the case. Round-headed Lohmann stands behind the desk in a spotlight with the map of the city behind him. Order has almost been restored.

But desks also communicate with each other in some pretty strange ways. At the very start, fallen cop Hofmeister has already tried to tell Lohmann that Mabuse is back, but while he is on the phone he is driven mad by some unspecified shock. Later, when Lohmann visits him in his cell, we see Hofmeister still on an imaginary phone at a spectral desk littered with animal ornaments in glass, superimposed, doubly transparent. Madness, clearly, but how do these relate to the little glass crocodile on Lohmann’s own desk? The desk behind the curtain from which Mabuse booms his orders is an empty shell. But the desk that communicates to it gramophonically is not straightforwardly occupied either. The scene in which he takes possession of it, so to speak, makes staggering use of superimposed images, and remains genuinely spooky to this day. In both films, psychoanalysis is an instrument of deception defeated by common sense and decency. But Lang’s eye is a little bit of the devil’s party.

By 1960, Mabuse’s sphere has narrowed to a single hotel once frequented by Nazis. And after years of relatively routine cop flicks, Lang is at the end of his career. As it turns out, Mabuse’s was only getting started: The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960) begat the thousand sequels of… Even so, the film is well worth seeing, and it is fitting that Lang returned to place the third and final pillar of a giant ‘M’ over his career.

This article was first published in the Winter 09 print issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.

Stephen Thomson

Gold: Interview with Nina Hoss

Gold_ copyright Emily Meyer_

Format: Cinema

Release date: 9 February 2013 (Berlin International Film Festival)

Director: Thomas Arslan

Writer: Thomas Arslan (screenplay)

Cast: Nina Hoss, Marko Mandi&#263, Lars Rudolph, Uwe Bohm, Peter Kurth, Rosa Enskat, Wolfgang Packhä;user

Germany 2013

113 mins

In the summer of 1898, a small group of German immigrants set out on a journey to Dawson City to find their fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush. The mostly inept travellers include a snobbish, mercenary news reporter, Gustav Müller (Uwe Bohm), who intends to report on the trip for a New York-based German paper, an older couple who take care of the catering, and a poor carpenter (Lars Rudolph) looking to make a better life for the large family he left behind in the city. Joining them at the last minute is Emily Meyer (Nina Hoss), a stern, self-reliant and hands-on divorcée, who soon turns out to be the most driven member of the group, willing to push ahead at all costs as they trudge deeper and deeper into a menacing wilderness, forging through dense woods and across raging rivers. Though determined and sensible, Emily’s focus seems to shift slightly as she starts talking to Carl Boehmer (Marko Mandi&#263), the charismatic (and only competent male) packer and horse guard, who eventually confesses to her that he is on the run after killing someone.

The man who claims to be able to lead them along the rough and steep way is shady businessman Wilhelm Laser (Peter Kurth), who holds their money as well as their hope in the form of some gold nuggets he insists were found at their aimed-for destination. But not only is the group badly equipped to handle the gruelling terrain, the tension between them soon gets the upper hand, and the accidents, injuries and mental exertions of their dangerous adventure gradually minimise their number as they move on.

Carefully constructed, weirdly chaste and slow in pace, Thomas Arslan’s Gold is essentially a German-language Western with a fierce sense of authenticity at the expense of action and drama. It’s beautifully shot and benefits in no small part from Arslan’s meticulous eye for characters continuously in motion, here carried by yet another remarkably restrained performance from Nina Hoss in the lead role. As precarious as their trip across uncharted territory may be, Emily’s certain of one thing – there is no going back to her old life, no matter where their journey comes to an end.

Pamela Jahn talked to Nina Hoss at this year’s 63rd edition of the Berlin International Film Festival in February, where Gold premiered in competition.

Pamela Jahn: Although the film is labelled a Western, it feels more like an adventurous road-movie at times. Did you approach it that way?

Nina Hoss: Yes, I think so. It’s much more about the path, the journey, than big shoot-outs, or whatever else you consider to be in a classic Western. Of course revenge is a motive, and there are other elements in the film that you find in a typical Western, but the plot is more like an adventure, or a road-movie with horses, maybe.

Have you ever shot a rifle before? What was it like to brandish one?

I learned how to shoot recently for a vampire movie I did, so it wasn’t all new to me. But it was exciting, because you don’t really get to shoot much in German movies unless you’re playing a detective or a cop. And what helped me with my role here is that Emily comes from the city, and she is going on this trip and experiences something she’s never done before – like she doesn’t know how to handle a gun, she doesn’t even know how to ride a horse. So she is learning all this throughout their journey, and I could learn with her, which took some pressure off me and made me feel more comfortable with the situation.

The film also tells a part of German history that probably no one really knew much about…

That’s right. I think this was actually part of Thomas’s personal approach for telling the story. I mean, we all knew that, at that time, there were lots of Germans emigrating to the United States and Canada, as they did from many other countries. But it’s interesting to see this group of Germans trying to make a new life for themselves, whereas now Germany is considered a place where people go to in the hope of making a better living.

But looking at it from today’s perspective, we all have to go on that path again in a way, because no one knows really how this financial crisis is going to end. So it was interesting for me to tell a story that shows that there is always hope. Even if you forget about why you’re on this path, and you don’t know whether you’ll ever see real gold in your life, the only thing that counts is that you keep on going. And maybe throughout that journey you change, which is what happens to Emily. She becomes more and more free and confident and self-fulfilled, and that is already a success.

What was the most challenging part for you during that journey?

It was a tough project, because it was a low budget movie, so as actors, we really had to deal with the horses all day long in between shooting. We did have two wranglers, but they couldn’t look after ten horses all at the same time. So whenever we took a break from shooting, we had to stand around with the horses. I wasn’t used to taking care of them at all. Horses get very tired after ten hours, just like us, and then it becomes dangerous because they do things you can’t predict – we had several dangerous moments. So for me, working with the wranglers was like a therapy of some sort, because I learned how to always stay calm for the horse. As soon as I got somehow excited or angry or tired, the horse would react immediately. So you always had to be in this ‘om’ zone, which was an amazing experience for me. I never thought I’d say this, but what impressed me most was the work with the animals. I really had to work hard to make it through the shoot. At the end of the day, we weren’t professional riders. I learned to ride a horse especially for this film, I had never done it before. But I wasn’t afraid… just very respectful.

There comes a moment in the film when Emily has to make a decision whether she wants to go on or not. Was there ever a moment in the process of the production where you, or Thomas Arslan, thought, ‘Stop. That’s it. I am not going any further.’

There was one moment when we were really worried that we had to stop. We were shooting in the Fraser River Valley, and there was only one gravel road out of the valley. Otherwise, you had to use a ferry to get on the other side of the river, but this was also miles away from where we were. One day we heard helicopters flying around and we couldn’t shoot because of the noise they made. And then suddenly we heard our producer through the walkie-talkie saying, ‘You have to stop immediately and leave…now!’ And if a producer says that, you know that something really bad is going to happen, because it costs them a fortune to break a shoot. So we tried to stay calm and started packing, and all that with these horses. So we had to guide them up this tortuous road to where the trucks were parked. And as soon as we got to top of the hill we realised what was happening, because we saw smoke, and then the fire. So we had to rush out of this valley through the fire, literally. Like there were trees falling down around us and what not. So we thought: ‘Oh god, will we ever make it out of here!’ But also, the question was really whether we would ever be able to go back to the set. We lost a couple of days because of this fire, but luckily we were able to return and finish the shooting.

Do you actually have a favourite Western movie?

I love the John Ford movies, which I first saw when I was still a kid. But I watched one recently that I hadn’t seen before, which is Monte Hellman’s The Shooting, which is really an incredible Western because it’s so simple in terms of the story and even the way it is shot, but extremely effective – I loved it!

Was it difficult for you to swap directors and work with Thomas Arslan instead of Christian Petzold? Is there an open conversation between those directors, who constitute this particular ‘Berlin School’ of filmmaking?

It was an exciting project for me, but not because I ‘left’ Christian Petzold for this film, as I have worked with other directors before. But what was interesting, first of all, was the fact that Thomas Arslan, as a German filmmaker, takes on Canada to make a Western. As a German actress, I never dreamed that I could ever be part of a Western. So this was very tempting. And of course it was also interesting for me to experience a different kind of working relationship with someone who comes from the same background as Christian. Christian knew before I did that Thomas was going to cast me for this role, because they are friends, so Thomas wanted to make sure that wasn’t a problem – which I think is a bit odd, because of course we can all work together. Christian thought it was great, because he had this idea very early on that there would be a big ensemble around these Berlin School directors, like a pool of people who work and develop things together. But he’d realised that wouldn’t quite work out because all of these directors have big egos. So I was quite excited that it was sort of happening, but I am also already working on my next film with Christian again, which I am looking forward to.

How do you and Christian Petzold work together as a team? What is your working relationship like?

I am always as prepared for my next role as one can possibly be. I already know all about it because I am part of the process, not necessarily of the writing, but of constructing the story. So I get the first 20 pages of the script and then the next 20 pages… I am very much involved and so I can go on that path with him. I can do my research and read the books related to the subject, which means I don’t have to hurry up to prepare right before we start shooting. So I am really in an ideal position with him.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Watch a clip from Gold:

International Film Festival Rotterdam 2013

Oh Boy 1
Oh Boy

42nd International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR)

23 January – 3 February 2013, Rotterdam, Netherlands

IFFR website

Occurring in January, the IFFR feels like the season opener for the annual round of international film festivals, with one foot in the past year and one in the future. Some of the films have played at other film festivals, with their European premieres taking place at Rotterdam, while others are fresh out of the production house for their world debuts, all of which serve to presage the offerings for upcoming festivals in 2013.

The very broad and encompassing catalogue evidences a film festival dedicated to excellent – I hesitate to say ‘art house’ – world movies. And what an eclectic bunch it was. Space permits only short observations on a select handful of works, so I start with two of my favourites: Oh Boy directed by German first-timer, Jan Ole Gerster, and another first feature by Cameroonian (by way of Los Angeles) director Victor Viyuoh, whose harrowing but moving film, Nina’s Dowry is a terrific and unforgiving look at oppressive village life in Cameroon, where wives are bartered for and treated ‘less well than cattle’. The story of the heroine’s journey to freedom – for which she pays a high price – is a wonderful testimony to the human spirit and a salutary lesson to Western audiences. The more so, as Viyuoh informs us that the story is based very closely on a relative’s terrible, true story. Not an easy watch, but an essential one.

Viyuoh’s film takes place far from the world of contemporary Berlin, where Jan Ole Gerster sets his narrative about a slacker-hero’s journey through the social strata of the city. A Candide-like figure, he goes on a simple and ultimately fruitless search for a cup of coffee, during which time he comes to a profound self-realisation. Shot in black and white, with a terrific jazz soundtrack, Oh Boy introduces a real talent to audiences. Gerster displays a very assured, mature and confident hand, and his film carries the DNA of all those off-beat counter-cultural films by the likes of the BBS gang. The film has garnered a fistful of awards on the Festival circuit in the last months: Best Film, Best Actor, Best Direction and Best Script. Keep an eye out for the release of these films and for future works from both of these impressive new talents.

Many of the ‘old masters’ of cinema have lately raised their lenses above the parapet and offered new works. Not – unhappily – with great results. De Palma fizzled out with his rather over-wrought Passion (2012), Copolla’s Twixt (2011) is painful, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Tree (2011) was a failure, and now comes one of my favourites, Bernardo Bertolucci with his Me and You (I e te).

Me and You is released in UK cinemas by Artificial Eye on 19 April.

The film tells the story of an oddball 14-year-old boy who hides in the cellar of his home to avoid going on a ski trip with his fellow students. He is joined by his beautiful half-sister, who is an addict trying to quit. She shatters his tranquil world and many familial truths come to light. This synopsis makes the film sound like it is rather perfunctory and that the director is merely going through the aesthetic directorial motions. It is. And in this, it is somewhat reminiscent of his 2003 film, The Dreamers, which also got critical short shrift for many of the same reasons. Poor Bertolucci – now wheelchair bound – should have taken note. Sexy adolescents and their world are probably something beyond his directorial grasp these days – and it pains me to say it.

Not had enough of elder cinematic statesmen working with nubile young actresses? Then Alicia Scherson’s The Future (Il futuro) is right up your alley. Intertextual to the last, the film stars the ageing action star Rutger Hauer playing…yes, you guessed it, an ageing action star! Named Maciste, he is prone to hiring ‘lady companions’ to cavort about in the nude doing Last Tango in Paris type things (and with the same attempted existential gravitas). A beautiful young thing is induced to throw her lot in with a couple of Eastern European lowlives, who her brother has befriended and taken in to their parent-less house. These two small-time crooks believe that Maciste has a fortune stashed somewhere in his mansion, and recruit the beautiful young thing – after they both have sex with her – to become an object of sexual interest to Maciste. His interest in her amounts to ritually anointing her body in oil, a la his old Italian peplum films. All this body-oiling is voyeuristically captured in loving detail by the camera – the better to titillate audiences. In all honesty, it is a great role for Hauer, and even the creaky plot is acceptable enough, but the whole composition of the film and the outlandish gratuitous sex give it a distinctly unintended campness. It’s a strange brew that is a cross between a 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) or 1987’s Angel Heart (with intellectual aspirations) and a Last Tango in Paris (1972) with a heist plot thrown in. Could become an unintended classic of its type – art-house drive-in kitsch.

Finally, speaking of drive-in aesthetics (can’t help your roots!) I come to the intriguingly titled Misericordia: The Last Mystery of Kristo Vampiro, a weird post-modern Mondo-type film by Khavn de la Cruz. The voice-over narrative is provided by one Kristo Vampiro, who in his ceaseless search for blood follows a camera crew to the real-life cock fights, self-flagellation and acted crucifixions so beloved of certain groups of Filipino believers. In between, the film crew spends time at the rock bar, Hobbit House, where all the servers are dwarves – and a ringside brothel provides entertainment. All this to the accompaniment of a mouth-organ soundtrack. Who could ask for more?

James B. Evans

The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich: Interview with Klaus Maria Brandauer

The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich

Format: Cinema

Release date: 18 January 2013

Country: Austria

Director: Antonin Svoboda

Writers: Rebecca Blasband, Antonin Svoboda

Cast: Klaus Maria Brandauer, Julia Jentsch, Jeanette Hain

Austria 2012

In 2009, Antonin Svoboda made a TV documentary about the Austrian-American psychiatrist and experimental scientist Wilhelm Reich. He has now returned to the subject with a feature biopic that focuses in particular on the second half of Reich’s life and work in American exile. Drawing on the depth of knowledge that Svoboda has acquired working on the project over many years, the film stars Klaus Maria Brandauer as Reich, who lends a compelling presence and dignity to his character.

Reich, who devoted himself to searching for the fundamentals of life, arrived in America in 1939, after fleeing Nazi Germany. His story is related with the help of flashbacks to his earlier career and the research that led him to a theory postulating the existence of a bioelectric life-force energy called ‘orgone’, which, according to Reich, flows through all living beings. Blocking up this force with social taboos and ideological nonsense could only lead to harm – for the individual and for society. However, his radical dream of liberating human individuality made Reich an increasingly dangerous opponent to the American system and, in 1956, Reich found himself on trial, charged with fraud and sentenced to two years in prison, while six tons of his publications were burned by order of the court. Intriguingly shot, yet not free of dramatic flaws, the film manages to be both understated and epic, leading up to Reich’s death in jail, reportedly of heart failure, only days before he was due to apply for parole.

Pamela Jahn talked to Klaus Maria Brandauer at the 50th Viennale in October 2012, where the film had its world premiere. It opens for a theatrical run in Austria this month.

Pamela Jahn: What attracted you to the character of Wilhelm Reich?

Klaus Maria Brandauer: I read the script and thought the theme was very fascinating. As an actor, you don’t necessarily play a part simply because of the character, but because of the story and the environment associated with this character. And in the case of Wilhelm Reich, I found that environment very intriguing. The story offers so much scope to express yourself because it describes not only a moment in time, but the 20 years Reich spent as an immigrant in America after leaving Germany in the late 1930s to escape the Nazis. And sometimes this relates back even to his earlier life – which you gradually learn from selected flashbacks – and the difficulties he’d experienced when he was young. Both his parents died very early, the mother committed suicide after having an affair with his tutor, soon after the father died of tuberculosis; then the Russians invaded and Reich and his brothers flew to Austria where he joined the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First World War. After the war, he went to Vienna where he studied medicine and became a student of Sigmund Freud, because he was also very interested in psychology and the social environment of human beings and their relationships with each other. But then he became somewhat disillusioned with Freud’s psychoanalytic method, and unlike most analysts, Reich was not content to keep silent, so he took his own path. But I think what is crucial to understand in his case is that he was not only a doctor or psychoanalyst, but a sociologist who did a lot of research on the situation of women in the 1920s in Austria, for example, because he was convinced that everything is related to everything else in this world and beyond. To some extent he was also a visionary, because he was convinced that one day somebody would prove that everything that we think, see and feel, as well as what we dream and what we imagine, that all this is ‘true’ and part of our human identity.

But instead of the freedom he hoped to find in the US, he was crushed by the American legal system.

Yes, because he was a very strong opponent of the war, of any kind of conflicts really, but most importantly of nuclear power. Although he had some conversations with Einstein about his discovery of ‘orgone’, he didn’t support the invention of special nuclear material or atomic energy, simply because it was first and foremost invented to kill people. And that’s where our film starts, in the moment that he believes himself living in a free country – an exemplary democracy, as it where – and all of a sudden he’s no longer allowed to carry out any research because he’s against nuclear weapons and also against any methods of manipulating the human psyche. So the Americans chase him, he is maligned and later even put into jail based on faked witness statements, and there he dies.

But to get back to your earlier question, Reich is only one example of many, and still there is something special about him as a man and as a scientist in the way he fought against the oppression of others, and of their thoughts. And in terms of his own work, he just wanted to carry out his research, independently and without getting on anyone’s back. That’s what fascinated me about Reich.

Talking about your work, you’ve had a remarkable career both on stage and on screen, but you always seem to remain truly faithful to theatre.

Because for me film is not more exciting than theatre, that’s nonsense. Today, as an actor, you work in television and if you have the time, you play in theatre. But when I first started, it was the other way around. When someone offered me a part in a film, back then I said, ’No thanks, I do theatre!’ But in a way it doesn’t really matter. There are people who work more in film and television, and then there are others who do more theatre – everyone has their own priorities. And of course it’s easy to think that film work is better paid, which it is, and that’s why people go for it. But if you’re a true actor, you just love doing theatre, so I don’t really have a preference.

Would you like to direct again as well?

Of course, but the two films I have done so far [Georg Elser – Einer aus Deutschland (Seven Minutes, 1989) and Mario und der Zauberer (Mario and the Magician, 1994)], I was really dying to do, and even when I watch them today, I think, ‘Thank God that you’ve done this!’ But to direct another film, I would first of all need a lot of time, like Antonin, who spent more than eight years developing The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich. Or, take Sidney Pollack’s Out of Africa (1985), it took years and many drafts to get the screenplay right and still no one wanted to finance it. And before Pollack, it was John Frankenheimer who tried to make that film. It was only because they were friends, and Pollack had worked as an assistant for him in the past, that Frankenheimer said, ‘Look, why don’t you give it a try? You’ve just had a major success with Tootsie, maybe you can do it’. And Pollack did. All I’m trying to say is that there is always an awful lot to do before, eventually, you can see a film on the big screen, especially in Europe, and in smaller countries like ours, it’s a nightmare to even just get it financed in the first instance.

Did you see parallels between Antonin Svoboda’s work on The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich and your first film, which was also shot in the English language, about Georg Elser, the man who attempted to assassinate Hitler in 1939?

It’s difficult for me to say, because Antonin is a professional filmmaker who went to film school and, originally, I was only meant to play Georg Elser in the film and John Frankenheimer was supposed to direct it. But when John came to Europe the dollar hit rock bottom, which was terrible for the production because the entire budget deflated within seconds, and then John said, ‘It’s not going to work like that, let’s just leave it’. One or two years later the producer of the film, John Daly, called me up and asked, ‘Klaus, do you still want to do that film about Elser?’ I said, ‘Of course, it’s a great project, but who’s going to direct it? Is John back onboard?’ And he said, ‘No, not John, you!’ Two weeks later I was sitting in LA trying to plan how I could make this work. So I called my friend Lajos Koltai, the Hungarian cinematographer, and said, ‘Listen, we always wanted to make a film where there is hardly any dialogue’. Because what has always annoyed me, even when I was younger, was that there is too much talking in film, as if it was literature. Film is a visual medium and is meant to express with images in the first instance, not with words. And Koltai said yes, and we made the film together in the end. But again, I am not a filmmaker, I didn’t show up on the set and said, ‘OK, focus at 45 please’. I learned all that from Koltai. I really wanted to make this film because of the story and Georg Elser as a character, which fascinated me in a similar way that Wilhelm Reich does now, partly because they were both outsiders. The difference is that one of them knew he was going to die and the other one didn’t stand a chance.

What do you feel an actor has to have these days?

I have been doing this job for 50 years now and I still don’t really know. I just found a way to do it, like others did before me, more or less, with different premises. I am artistically minded, I need literature, I need music and so on and so forth, and I can try to express other people’s words and stories in many different ways and different formats: in an audio play, a TV production, on stage or on the big screen, it doesn’t matter. The most important thing is that you’re not trying to act, but to explore something, to delve into the character. Nobody likes actors who act, not in theatre and even less in film. Anyone can recite a text or a dialogue, but it’s my responsibility to bring this person to life – that’s my duty. But in order to succeed, it has to be the deepest passion of your mind and heart to be human. And I mean you as a person! In other words: you have to know for yourself whether you call the tune on a Stradivarius or you’re just scraping a fiddle. Of course you can develop through practice, but if you don’t care about it at all, sooner or later others will. Most importantly though, and this is the real problem: art makes no sense at all. But that’s why it is so fascinating.

Are you driven by self-doubt or disapproval, either as an artist or personally?

A devout human being, who believes in God, but who doesn’t sometimes doubt, will never find that God and is a complete idiot.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Amour: Interview with Michael Haneke


Format: Cinema

Release date: 16 November 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Michael Haneke

Writer: Michael Haneke

Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert

Austria/France/Germany 2012

127 mins

Compared to Haneke’s earlier works, Amour stands out for its astounding sensitivity and subtle tenderness, but ultimately, the story, which centres around 80-year-old retired music teachers George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), is no less hard-hitting. As the couple are faced with Anne’s physical and mental deterioration after two successive strokes, the film scrutinises, in a profoundly intelligent and unsettling way, the consequences of life and death, and the role that long-standing love plays when one half of an ageing couple is facing the end. As one would expect from a filmmaker as precise and skilful as Haneke, Amour is finely scripted, superbly composed, and often hauntingly beautiful and desperately sad. The quiet grandeur of the film, however, would be lost without its two main actors, whose astonishing, disarmingly honest performances breathe life into Haneke’s formal perfection in capturing the realities of terminal illness in meticulous detail. Crafted with passionate conviction and a mastery of film language, Amour is that rare work of genius: an acute philosophical inquiry that’s highly emotionally charged, but also dramatically gripping, incredibly discreet and utterly credible in its depiction of human behaviour.

Pamela Jahn talked to Michael Haneke after the premiere of Amour at the 65th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in May to find out more about one of the most exciting films this year, and what makes a great director.

Pamela Jahn: Amour is essentially a chamber play, and the apartment where the film is set feels very much like its own character. What role did the premises play for you in the story?

Michael Haneke: The apartment in the film is based on my parents’ apartment in Vienna, which I had rebuilt in a French studio. We gave it a French atmosphere but the layout is the same. When you’re writing a film it’s easier to use a geography that you know so intimately.

The film describes in a very sensible but precise way how an elderly couple deals with the ravages of old age and looming death. What made you explore that subject matter?

Like I think all of us do, at some point in our lives, I knew someone in my family who I felt very close to and who I loved very deeply. But this person had to suffer for a long time and went through a lot of pain while I had to look on helplessly. This was a very difficult and disturbing experience for me and so it motivated me to write the script. But please don’t think that because it is the apartment of my parents this is also the story of my parents. It’s not.

Was it difficult to get Jean-Louis Trintignant involved in the project? Amour is the first film he has made in years.

Yes, that’s true, but it was not difficult to get him involved. I wrote the part for him, in fact, I wrote the script for him. And he had seen my previous film, The White Ribbon, which he liked, so it was actually quite easy for me to get him for this film.

It seems like you wanted to work with him for a long time?

Yes, I always admired his work. But the problem is always in finding the right part for an actor. I know many actors I’d like to work with, but I haven’t had the occasion to offer them what I think is the right part for them. In Jean-Louis’s case, because of the theme and the fact that you are dealing with elderly characters, he was the only person I wanted to work with in this film. In fact, if he hadn’t been available, I wouldn’t have made it. Hidden, for example, was a very similar situation for me. I wrote the film for Daniel Auteuil because I wanted to work with him.

Why did you choose to make George and Anne music teachers, who have a very particular place in society?

I wanted to avoid the danger of the film coming across as a social drama. I wanted to set aside any financial constraints, because if the film had been set in the working-class environment, people would probably have thought: oh, if they only had enough money, things wouldn’t be all that bad. But that’s not true, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, the situation, the tragedy is the same. Another reason why I wrote the film for a musical couple is because my stepfather was a conductor and composer, so again, it’s a milieu that I am familiar with and it is easier for me to describe the setting with the most precision and detail.

You are widely recognised as a master of film language and the different aspects of filmmaking. What do you find most difficult as a director?

Good question… The hardest part is probably not to feel nervous in the morning when you wake up.

What do you do to avoid that?

Nothing, unfortunately. The difficult thing is getting ready before the shoot. It’s similar to being an actor just before a theatre performance. Usually, the actor is terribly nervous while waiting in the wings but, as soon as the curtain goes up, he’s totally concentrated. It’s that constant stress that you feel on a daily basis and the fear that you are not going to be able to succeed and achieve what you are looking for. But unlike in theatre, where, if you’re rehearsing and something doesn’t work out one day, you can come back to it the next day and try again, you don’t have that luxury in film. You just shoot a scene on one day and if it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted it, then it’s lost, because you have to move on to the next scene. That’s one of the disadvantages of making films compared to theatre and opera.

There is also this great story about Ingmar Bergman, that whenever he was shooting a film there had to be a bathroom nearby because he was so nervous that he needed to go to the bathroom frequently. I don’t know whether the story is really true or not but I can certainly empathise with this.

You said elsewhere that you work better with your ears than with your eyes. How do you explain this?

It’s because your ears are more sensitive than your eyes, or at least that’s the case for me. Sometimes when I look at a scene, I get too easily distracted by thousands of details. But when I don’t look, I hear immediately if there is something wrong with the sound or if somebody said something that is not quite right. There is also a simple example: if you need to loop a scene, which means if you are asking an actor to come back to the sound studio and re=record a sentence, that for some reason didn’t work out the first time around, people always think that synchronising the lip movement is the hardest part. But actually that’s the easiest part, because, as long as the lip movements match, it is credible for the audience. It’s the scenes that are off-camera, like voice-overs, that are the tricky ones because you immediately hear if the tone is wrong. In the many years I have been directing for theatre, I have often gazed to the ground while my actors were rehearsing on stage, not for the entire time of the rehearsal, but for parts of it, because I thought I could better comment on their performances that way.

You mentioned Bergman before. How much of an influence was he on you, in particular in this film?

I am influenced by Bergman in the same way that I am influenced by a number of different directors. In fact, I think it’s very important for a filmmaker to try not to be influenced by other people and rather find your own language. As an artist, your artistic equation is ultimately the result of all the other films you have seen, all the books that you have read, all the personal experiences in your life, everything really. And you should just try and do what you feel you have to do instead of asking yourself all the time what Mr X or Mrs Y would have done in that situation. But nonetheless, I think it is true that what my films have in common with Bergman’s is that they all focus on the actors, because that’s what interests me most.

When was the moment you decided to become a director?

Well, let’s say when I was 15 I was hoping to become an actor like my mother, when I was 14 I wanted to be a pianist and when I was 13 I wanted to be a priest. But as an actor, I wasn’t accepted at the academy, so I studied philosophy instead and did a lot of writing, short stories and a bit of film criticism. I was a terrible student though because I was in the cinema three times a day. Then, I went to television and became a story editor. I also worked in theatre for 20-odd years and at the same time directed films for television. And then, at the age of 46, I decided to make my first feature film. With hindsight, I think it is almost always very easy to draw some sort of red line through your biography, but I believe that in your life most things are determined by luck and coincidence, and the goals you set for yourself develop, just as you do along the way.

Why do you refuse so vehemently to offer an interpretation to your films?

If I were to explain things myself and offer an interpretation then this would automatically reduce the spectator’s ability to find their own answers. My films are offerings, I invite the audience to deal with them, think about them and reflect upon them and, ultimately, to find their own answers. I also think that an author doesn’t always necessarily know what he intends and what the meaning is behind his work. For example, I am always amazed by the many theses and books I read about myself, all of which reveal what I supposedly wanted to express in my films or was supposed to have dealt with. I strongly believe it would be very counterproductive for the audience if I were to answer the questions I am raising in my films, because then no one would have to think about them.

Have you ever been disappointed by the reception of a film you made?

Yes, Funny Games U.S. was pretty much a flop.

Would you generally consider yourself a pessimist or an optimist?

I don’t think I am a pessimist or that I have ever been a pessimistic person. If this was the case, I would only make entertainment films because I wouldn’t think that people actually care, and are intelligent enough, to want to deal with the questions I raise in my films. In that sense, I believe every so-called artist can only be an optimist, because otherwise they wouldn’t be motivated to try and ask questions and to communicate with their audience. A pessimist would simply say: it’s pointless, so I am not doing anything.

Has your motivation to make films changed over the years?

No, but that may be because I can’t really say why I am making films in the first place. Probably it’s because that’s all I know how to do.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Barbara: Interview with Christian Petzold


Format: Cinema

Dates: 28 September 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Christian Petzold

Writers: Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki

Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock

Germany 2012

105 mins

Best known internationally for his chilly, haunting melodramas Yella (2007) and Jerichow (2008), Christian Petzold has yet again teamed up with actress Nina Hoss for his latest film Barbara. Hoss gives a mesmerising performance as Barbara Wolff, a doctor who has applied for an exit visa from the GDR only to find herself transferred from Berlin to a provincial hospital in the countryside, spied upon by the Stasi while her lover in the West is secretly preparing to help her escape via the Baltic Sea. Like all Petzold’s films, Barbara is informed by the director’s background in literature and cinema history, and yet it stands in its own right as a subtly balanced, emotionally restrained and elegantly shot drama crafted by a real auteur, with a style, vision and worldview entirely his own.

Pamela Jahn talked to Christian Petzold at this year’s 62nd edition of the Berlin International Film Festival in February where Barbara premiered in Competition and earned him the Silver Bear for Best Director.

Pamela Jahn: Your films are often inspired by literature. In Yella, for example, you are borrowing your genre conventions from James M. Cain’s cult pulp novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Your new film Barbara, however, feels more like a classic novella.

Christian Petzold: There are two books that served as an inspiration for me this time: Hermann Broch’s novella Barbara, which is set in 1928 and tells the story of a female doctor who takes a job in a rural hospital in order to hide her communist activities from the police, and Werner Bräunig’s novel Rummerplatz. In Bräunig’s book a doctor’s son is consumed by physical work for the first time in a uranium mine. He defines himself through this work, which is interesting because work as a theme had almost completely disappeared from the literature and cinema in the West. Another aspect that appealed to me was that the book tells how women replaced the workers who had been wooed by the West, which somewhat gave those women a new purpose and self-understanding, and I wanted to tell a story about this.

Barbara marks your fifth collaboration with actress Nina Hoss. How would you describe your work relationship?

Part of the reason why we work together so well is because we help each other develop and, at the same time, with each film our work relationship grows stronger. For example, when we were shooting Jerichow I felt that I had to do something different in my next film, especially with the ending, because I realised that I kept pushing Nina into tragedy every single time; like a writer, who keeps killing his heroine at some point so he can finish this book and get on to a new story. I got really annoyed with myself for always working within that same pattern. When Nina and I talked about the final scene, I told her that, next time, I would like to make a film with an open ending and we ended up having a very long conversation about what this means for my work, for our work, and for what we’re trying to achieve, which helped me a lot. And that’s the great thing about our collaboration: that we can have those conversations and support and inspire each other. That’s what makes it so exciting for me.

Aside from working with Nina Hoss, you have developed a very special way of casting people.

Yes, when I start casting for a new film, I first listen to the voices of actors. If you ask me, all these talent agencies should send out CDs instead of DVDs; there is much more to get from listening to voices. But if you find an actress like Nina Hoss and you work together for so many years, your attitude towards the character changes in a way. I don’t really describe her anymore in the script, which means she somewhat appears out of a situation; I don’t need to support her literarily because she already exists. But at the same time, I also need to keep a sort of respectful distance from that particular character.

Barbara is set in former communist East Germany in 1980. What fascinated you about this particular era and how did you approach it, since you grew up in West Germany?

My parents fled the GDR when I was still very young, so I grew up in the Western part of Germany. But my parents kept travelling back to the East part quite regularly and they took my brothers and me with them, so East Germany was not so unfamiliar to me. The problem is the kind of stuffiness that exists in Germany, that narrow thinking that only someone who has lived through a story has the right to tell it. But if you look at the great works of world literature, many of these stories are actually told from the perspective of an outsider. Like in The Great Gatsby, for example, the narrator is the only character who is dead. With Barbara, it was very important to me that the actors understand my particular perspective. Before I start shooting, I always watch selected films with my team in order to get everyone in the mood and, this time, one of the films we watched during the rehearsals was The French Connection. There is a scene in the film in which Gene Hackman’s character, [Jimmy] Doyle, wanders back to his apartment after a long shift and suddenly gets attacked by a sniper. What makes this sequence so fascinating and one of the most frenetic moments in the film is the perspective. Normally, any director would cut from Gene Hackman walking down the street to the sniper and then follow him through the reticle just before the gunshot to build up tension and suspense. But the film doesn’t do that: instead the camera keeps at eye level with Hackman during the entire chase. Only after 15 minutes of chasing the sniper through the jammed streets of New York, only in the very moment when Doyle seems to have caught himself in a dead end, when he struggles to stay in control, that’s when the camera changes its perspective and points at him. What I was trying to explain with this sequence was the importance of my viewpoint in Barbara, which is similar in terms of the camera position. I wanted everyone to understand why the camera has to be in a certain spot, why can’t it be anywhere else because that would change my perspective on the story.

It is your first historical film. How difficult was it for you to reconstruct the setting of the GDR in the early 1980s?

What I wanted to achieve with Barbara was to make a historical film but without evoking history merely through the setting where you have the hammer and sickle symbol in every frame. Instead, I tried to create an open space. There is a nice anecdote about François Truffaut and Jean Renoir having a conversation about Renoir’s The Golden Coach [1952]. Truffaut was of the opinion that you could only do history in the studio, you couldn’t show any sky, because the sky is always the sky of today. Renoir disagreed. In his view, you had to use both the studio and the sky, as in the historical and the present. If you pretend that the film was only about the past with no relation to our present time, then the film itself would be a lie. And I thought I actually agree with Renoir, which is why in Barbara, you see lots of sky, lots of wind, and lots of colour. But there was another aspect that was important to me in that regard: I watched Chinatown [1974] again because it’s a historical film and I kept wondering why the Los Angeles of the 1930s that is recreated in the film never feels like a German historical film, for example. I realised that it is because of the different aggregate states at play such as heat, drought, and male and female sweat, and I think all this is linked together. Or, take Fassbinder’s The Merchant of Four Seasons [1971], he also managed to create a sense of the historical atmosphere with very little means, but still to great effect. It’s almost like a childhood memory, like with Proust, you smell something and history begins to unfold. The only other option would have been to go with Bresson, cool and distanced. Those were the two options I considered and, ultimately, I decided to go with The Merchant of Four Seasons.

Looking at your previous films, they seem to be strongly informed by the fundamental cracks in German society.

I find it very difficult to think about why this is, but it seems obvious that I am interested in people who don’t feel comfortable in their skin. I believe a lot of it has to do with the fact that my parents fled the GDR and when we first got to West Germany I spent quite some time in transitional housing and never got the feeling that I arrived anywhere properly. I always felt more like an outsider myself, whereas my parents desperately tried to adapt to their new surroundings but, at the same time, it made them become even more estranged. All these are themes that worry me in a way but I think that, one day, I’ll just pay for a psychoanalyst to get to the bottom of it all (laughs). That said, my next film also follows a similar line – I just can’t help it.

Can you tell us a little bit more about your new film?

It’s set in Berlin in 1945, so it’s a historical film again. In short, it’s about a woman who survived Auschwitz and she now wants her life back.

Do you feel you had to go through different steps in your career before you could approach that part of German history?

No, it was not quite like that. The story almost fell in my hands in a way. My long-term co-author Harun Farocki and I read a crime novel from 1946 which had a similar plot line. That was about two or three years ago and for some reason it stuck with me. But it’s true that, back then, it didn’t feel like the right thing to do. A Jewish woman, Berlin, the Holocaust, it felt too charged, too close to me then.

How do you explain your particular interest in female characters?

Good question. To answer that, I probably have to go through at least 10 years of psychotherapy (laughs). No, honestly, I think some filmmakers have a preference for male characters and then there are others, who are more interested in female characters. David Lynch, for example, is a ‘women director’ in that way, and John Ford is a ‘male director’. That doesn’t mean that one is better than the other, it’s just how you project yourself into the world. And the way I look at women in my films is not like a pure Hitchcockian look, where the woman functions as an erotic object for the desiring look of the male. I am not fetishising anything. Especially with Nina, it’s more like there is someone whom I don’t know and who I can’t be, who is something completely strange to me. It’s like these female characters are somehow caught in a different world, like in exile, and they’re trying to get back in touch with the world I live in, the world we all live in. On the other hand, with my camera I am somewhat in exile too, and from there I keep trying to get to the core of the story. This is how it all correlates.

Nina Hoss has said elsewhere that she would love to make a comedy with you one day. Can you imagine yourself doing that too?

Of course Nina said that, because she is great in comedies (laughs). And I would love to make a comedy too. But it’s incredibly difficult to make a really good comedy and so I keep putting it off just as I keep putting off to quit smoking. I guess I am just not ready for it yet.

Interview by Pamela Jahn