Tag Archives: Westerns

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:

When Men Betray Men

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

‘No one would ever pay 25 cents to stand in the rooms he grew up in.’ – The narrator on Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

The Western has its themes as large as the geology of Monument Valley and yet as intimate as a face. Masculine friendship is one of those themes. The plus side is a sense of kinship and solidarity, a closeness, a masculine friendship that runs from Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) and Shane (George Stevens, 1953) to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) and through to the thoroughly unsurprising, though at the time daring Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005). And yet it was always there, that need, that desperate need for companionship and self-realisation that a mere woman could never provide. After all, if women represent anything, they represent the end of the West. Be it Natalie Wood in The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) as the confused end of the quest (whether she wants it or not) or Claudia Cardinale in Once upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968), who is not only the instigator for the death or departure of all the male characters but the end of Leone’s epic Spaghetti Western cycle. Women hadn’t featured at all, except in the tired dichotomy of Madonnas (Marisol) or sundry whores.

Friendship is all. It is an emotional connection that you can have while still remaining true to the West. It is as old as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, or for that matter Huckleberry Finn and Jim, who in the end would rather go to hell than betray a man he comes to realise is his friend. The chalk and cheese buddy relationship would be the template for the cop buddy movies, in the same way horse operas turned to gangster movies.

The importance of friendship, the centrality of male friendship casts a long shadow though. The vulnerability and emotional neediness that stand behind the ideal of male friendship run against the emotional inscrutability and toughness that represent the macho ideal. The shadow such neediness casts is that of betrayal. Betrayal is to male friendship what adultery is to marriage, it at once contravenes all the rules but at the same time is the necessary definition for the relationship itself. Being married (in the traditional sense) is basically defined by exclusive sexual access, and so being married is about not being adulterous, but then again you can only be adulterous by at first being married. So betrayal is not only a contravention of friendship, it is another expression of it. It is always disappointed love.

Robert Ryan’s Deke Thornton in The Wild Bunch (1969) pursues William Holden’s Pike with something like ardour. In the events leading up to the betrayal we see Thornton’s capture taking place in the bedroom of a brothel with a get-in-the-way woman conveniently muddying the waters. The proximity of sex to the key moment, the seed of betrayal, sharpens the sense that in hunting Pike, Thornton is revenging himself against Pike’s betrayal of him. The blood bath that concludes the film also represents a choice that the men make. They turn from the brothel and the boring repetition of heterosexual sex to go out in a blaze of male-bonding glory. Pike will receive his first bullet from a woman who stands watching him from a bedroom mirror. ‘Bitch,’ he hisses as he blows her away. The violence of their demise will be better than sex in that it is irreversible. Instead of the innumerable little deaths of the orgasm, this is the big death of the Gattling gun.

Sam Peckinpah’s misogyny can only really be understood as a sop to his disappointed man love. He is heterosexually gay. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) pits James Coburn as the law man against his former friend and accomplice, played by a beardless and ultimately bare-chested Kris Kristofferson. There is a careful strategic deployment of whores in both The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but they are only there for the biological ho-hum jiggery-pokery of sex. Love is something that is felt exclusively between men (and therefore so is murderous hate), and women can only get in the way and ruin the fun. It’s significant that in Billy the Kid’s demise Peckinpah refrains from his usual slow-motion bloodletting, as if he couldn’t bring himself to spoil Billy’s beauty.

Masculine betrayal bleeds through into other genres, but generally speaking it tends to be familial. Fredo in The Godfather: Part Two (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) is not the first brother to do a sibling wrong – think On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954): ‘It was you, Charlie’ – but it is a fantastic moment, as the fragile façade of an ethos falls to pieces before our eyes and we realise that this is just bloody mayhem, straight and simple. Not only is family not protected – the rationale behind Vito Corleone’s actions – it is corroded, torn apart. Even in science fiction, Lando Carlrissian’s betrayal of Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) is recognisably that of two cowboy chums with a long history.

The most recent and indeed the most thorough treatment of the topic comes in Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Robert Ford is a pallid adolescent forever catching the breath of his own surprising emotions. His love for Jesse James is somewhere between fandom and embarrassing teenage infatuation. He spies Jesse in the bath, collects facts about him and fetishistically touches things that Jesse has touched. Jesse is well aware of the boy’s feelings and indeed courts them, disappointed as he is by the quiet anonymity of his own family life and his estranged relationship with his elder brother (Sam Shephard). In fact, James himself is a lost boy, a fact that the casting of a visibly ageing Brad Pitt emphasises. His little boy lost status is seen in his proclivity for practical jokes, little dances, pouty moodiness and occasional tears. Even his violence is childish: he sits on a child and tries to twist his ear off. It is schoolyard bullying writ large but bullying nonetheless and it explains his need for Robert’s adoration, even perhaps his need for death, which he already feels perhaps is coming too late.

The assassination (the word was introduced into English by William Shakespeare to describe Caesar’s death, which included the second most famous betrayal) itself is not a betrayal. The assassination is longed for, wanted. As with Judas, Robert is not so much Jesse’s adversary as his accomplice. He is armed by Jesse, given motivation, cajoled and threatened into it. The scene of the assassination is almost comic in the way Jesse is the director and Robert and his brother (Sam Rockwell) the reluctant actors. Jesse lays down his guns, positions himself with his back to his would-be killers and even gets to become a spectator in his own death as he watches Robert Ford raise his gun in the reflection of the picture glass that he is ostensibly intent on cleaning. An alternative title for the film could be ‘The Suicide of Jesse James Exploiting the Witless Ambition of Robert Ford’.

The true betrayal comes in the aftermath: the exploitation of Jesse’s death for personal gain. Initially, Robert and his brother are traumatised by what they have done, tearful and panicked, but in the space of time that it takes to run down the hill to the telegraph office they have become cocky and assured of their future fame. The theatrical replaying of the murder betrays not only Robert’s friendship with Jesse but also the integrity of the moment. It goes from tragedy via repetition to farce. But then of course the telling of the tale becomes, as with the Ancient Mariner, a curse: ‘By his own approximation Robert assassinated Jesse James over 800 times. He suspected no one had ever so openly and publicly recapitulated an act of betrayal.’ The psycho-drama enhanced by Charlie’s casting as Jesse and his increasingly uncanny portrayal seems like a punishment and already the audience begins to see through Robert’s self-aggrandising version of events, calling out ‘coward’.

By killing Jesse, Robert has only managed to facilitate Jesse’s resurrection via photography and theatrical representation. Robert’s own fame is initially intense but fleeting. He will be forgotten and if remembered, his name will be forever subsidiary to and blackened by his association with Jesse James. It will also make him fair game for the passing psychosis of the man who will kill him. As such the betrayal serves Jesse: he is the beneficiary. Christian martyrdom is, in the final analysis, an immoral aggressive act, a cornering, or better still, given the Chinese box presence of the media in Dominik’s film, a framing.

John Bleasdale

Everybody Dies

Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb


Because of the nature of this article, it is impossible to give a spoiler alert for specific films. By simply naming the film, the spoiler is already done. So readers are hereby warned. I have made sure, however, that the most recent film I have used is from 2008 and so these are all films you have had a chance to see.

There is a definition of the difference between comedy and tragedy, which I think comes from the marvellously named Northrop Frye. It goes something like this: tragedy says ‘everybody dies’ and comedy says, ‘ah well, life goes on’. In tragedy, everybody (usually) does not die. We always have our Horatios, to ‘draw his breath in pain’ and recount the story of what happened. In cinema, likewise, Horatios abound; survivors of massacres and shoot-outs, who live on older and wiser, like on-screen audience members. Think of The Wild Bunch (1969) and Deke Thornton, played by Robert Ryan. He is the only original member of the gang to survive. Their bloody finale is a battle he witnesses, but does not participate in. His arrival also retroactively justifies their suicidal decision. Had they survived, they would have been forced into a fratricidal showdown with Deke and his bounty hunters. As is also the case in Red River (1948), a third party antagonist allows a much more painful family quarrel to be sidestepped.

Westerns and War Movies

When everybody dies in a Western, it is partly because as a genre its ruling theme is one of loss and decline. They Died with Their Boots On (1941) is still startling to watch today as Errol Flynn’s cavalry unit is wiped out. However, that was the portrait of a massacre, a massacre that itself went on to both erase and justify other much larger, much more destructive massacres: a genocide in fact. Once upon a Time in the West (1968) begins with death – the three waiting gunmen are dispatched with brilliant abruptness – continues with death – the massacre of a family and sundry hired guns – and ends with the death of the three male protagonists: Frank is killed on camera, Cheyenne’s death is indicated through the soundtrack and Harmonica’s is implied – he has in fact been dying from the very first shoot-out. As in The Wild Bunch, an old masculine way of life has died as civilisation and a new female-dominated space persist. Claudia Cardinale survives to run her business, perhaps to tell the tale, but probably secretly relieved not only that her tormentor is gone, but likewise her quasi-rapist saviours.

The West needs its men to die. Likewise war films demand high body counts, and the death of the main protagonists can be almost total. Of course, death is valued and figured differently in different genres. In a war movie, like Saving Private Ryan (1998), the meaningless deaths that begin the film are substituted with the meaningful sacrifices that conclude the film. Captain Miller’s last words insist that his death and the death of practically his whole squad be given meaning and in that way somehow redeemed. ‘Deserve this,’ he tells Matt Damon’s Private Ryan, and obviously in doing so the audience, whom Spielberg and historian Stephen Ambrose explicitly wish to remind of the heroism and sacrifice of the ‘good’ war. We are all being reprimanded. Even bad wars (Vietnam, Somalia) can be turned into life lessons. Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) both succeed in turning their whey-faced young innocents into hardened real men, usually via the meaning(ful)less deaths of their comrades in arms. But here we stray. People die during a war, lots of people, but not everybody. In fact, as with Saving Private Ryan, war movies see events from the perspective of survivors.

Although not a war movie as such, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List approaches the Holocaust from this perspective. And here this emphasis threatens to distort the actual subject. If all you knew of the world was gained from watching Schindler’s List, one could be forgiven for thinking that as bad as the Holocaust was, it wasn’t difficult to survive as long as one had a kindly Nazi to hand. Spielberg’s lucky Jews even survive the gas chamber – being led to a shower room which, despite a false alarm, is actually a shower room. Compare this to the little seen The Grey Zone (2001), directed by Tim Blake Nelson. Here, the Jews who make up the subject of the film are not lucky, nor innocent. The sonderkomando are prisoners who are responsible for seeing to the day-to-day mechanics of the gas chambers and ovens under the watchful eye of the German guards. It is they who usher in the prisoners from the train to the bathhouse; they who calm fears with lies, and they who lock the doors and then loot and burn the bodies. A Jewish pathologist working with Mengele is given special treatment, but anguishes over his decisions. Quarrelling with a fellow prisoner, he says he might bring something good out of all this and is rebuffed. ‘You give the killing purpose,’ the prisoner (played by Daniel Benzali) growls. Giving meaning to death is the most immoral reaction. The same prisoner, in organising a revolt, makes it clear that his aim is not escape, but sabotage. Survival, rather than being an imperative, becomes morally dubious. As Vasily Grossman writes of a sonderkomando in the same situation: ‘he was dimly aware that if you wish to remain a human being under fascism, there is an easier option than survival – death.’

As a film, The Grey Zone insists that everybody dies. Not only the Jews in the gas chambers, but also the sonderkomando who rebel, and the sonderkomando who don’t (they are exterminated and replaced every four months). The film’s coda also informs us that the Nazi commandant is also executed and the pathologist dies. His wife dies in the 70s. This is the opposite of Spielberg’s coda, which is almost tasteless in its argument that Schindler’s survivors have had lots of babies, as if this was a problem that could be solved with arithmetic. The ending of Schindler’s List is comic – life goes on – whereas The Grey Zone refuses to give the killing extra-narrative meaning and is decidedly tragic. Everybody dies, even the survivors will die.

Gangster and Horror

The most common films in which everybody dies are gangster and horror films. In gangster films, the offing of large numbers of principal characters can easily be explained as the old studio imperative that crime mustn’t be seen to pay (but that this must only come at the end after we’ve had our vicarious vice). It did for James Cagney in White Heat (1949), Al Pacino in Scarface (1983) and the runaways of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Going back to Jacobean tragedy for a second, Reservoir Dogs (1992) manages to kill everyone, outdoing Hamlet. Mr Pink (the weasel) appears to escape, but the soundtrack leads us to believe he was likely gunned down outside. Likewise, Mr White gets an off-screen death scene. There is no Horatio, no Deke Thornton. The film has a pleasingly classical completeness. The only speaking role who survives is Mr Orange’s superior officer and I like to think that Mr Pink got him with a stray bullet before himself falling under a hail of gunfire.

The Final Destination, Hostel and Saw franchises depend on the wholesale slaughter of their casts, making the inevitability of their deaths into something like a game. The poster line for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) – ‘Who will survive and what will be left of them?’ – runs true for a number of horror films. Going one better are the films that tell you from the very beginning that everyone involved in the incidents related in the film has been killed, or ‘gone missing’. Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is an early example of this. We know everyone has died. All that remains is to see how. Likewise in The Blair Witch Project (1999). Here, Horatio is the camera itself and the tapes or footage left behind. The same device is used in Cloverfield (2008).

Where this isn’t pre-agreed, the death of everyone can come as a shock. The most effective examples of this can be found in The Long Weekend (1978) and Open Water (2003). These are both revenge-of-nature films, and the genre implies that someone will ultimately survive to tell the tale. Both films involve couples rather than groups, and so this might lead to their vulnerability. Both films also imply the indifference of the universe to us, and therefore by extension to our need for narrative comfort. Despite its environmental credentials, 1972’s Silent Running shares a similarly terrifying view of the larger indifference of the universe.

Everybody Dies

There is a film where everybody really does die. Not just the protagonists – everybody. The main characters, the bit parts, the non-speaking extras, people who never appear on screen and the audience. Dr Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964) is the opposite of Schindler’s List. Whereas Schindler’s List is a tragedy operating in a comic universe, Dr Strangelove is a comedy realised in a tragic netherworld. The implied annihilation is rendered certain by the final shots of mushroom clouds. Even the doomsday machine doesn’t condemn humanity as finally and completely as the sound of Vera Lynn singing ‘We’ll Meet Again’ does. This irony doesn’t work without our accepting our own complete destruction. Other post-nuclear films concentrate on either the fantasy or the nightmare of a splinter of humanity remaining. However unpleasant that might be, life does go on. Dr Strangelove is unique in positing that life does not go on and is even more radically interesting in suggesting that (humanity being what it is) our all ending could be the only happy ending. The often skipped-over subtitle says it all. We love the bomb because ultimately we deserve it. The laughter inherent in Kubrick’s masterpiece is wrought with pain but also indicative of relief. Finally, life does not go on.

John Bleasdale

Some of the ideas in this article were developed with the aid of a discussion thread at film-philosophy.com and I would like to thank the film scholars who made suggestions and participated in that thread.