Friday, January 16, 2009

Der Goldene Mann

There's been a tendency in recent German cinema- or, at least, the recent German cinema that is deigned good enough to be internationally distributed- to look back and reexamine the country's troubled past century. Obviously this primarily focuses on the Second World War- it sticks out like a sore thumb, dontchaknow?- and I can't help wondering if this is because the filmmakers are now, probably, at least two generations removed from those who were directly affected by the war. We're surely getting to the stage now where direct connections to the war in families are lost before this new generation of filmmakers was born- the war is, slowly, becoming consigned to history. And, if there's one thing we know the Academy loves, it's history.

The Reader- which, I hasten to add, is not a German film but an American-British co-production, although it heavily features many German actors- is indeed all about a generation that were not directly involved in the war. Central character Michael Berg (David Kross/Ralph Fiennes) is part of the first post-war generation- born, it would seem, during the war, but living in a time where the loss smarts so keenly on the older generation that he himself remains freewheeling and content. It's only as he grows up, having had an affair with a reticent but enigmatic older woman (Kate Winslet), that he becomes engrossed in the politics and morals of his country's past. Particularly when his former lover appears as a defendant in a War Crimes trial.

Stephen Daldry's third film- following British ballet fairy-tale Billy Elliot and the elaborate, confounding The Hours- clearly wants to dig deep into the moral maze that is the war and the spectral shadows it cast, but, to twist a phrase, it's all talk and the wrong kind of action. For a film that is fraught early-on with nudity and intimate sexual happenings, The Reader is remarkably cold- even these scenes are presented with almost clinical precision, not the nervous anticipation that should surely be accompanying young Michael's first sexual encounters (for the film is undeniably aligned with him- Winslet's Hanna remains a distant mystery). Expecting these films to solve the moral dilemmas is surely ridiculous- if we could, then such crimes would become thinkable, the one thing they are surely not- but The Reader offers up stultifying classroom discussions and expects them to be readily applied to its simplistic offerings up in the courtroom. I've heard it said, predictably enough, that The Reader isn't about the Holocaust, and while it is obviously a personal story of being forever haunted by a lost love and a betrayal, to negate the aspects that refracting that story through such a damaging period such as the war is basically insulting. Any deftness the film manages vanishes completely towards the end, as Hanna is miraculously excused from her wrongdoing with an ill-concieved (or at least ill-portrayed) plot point, and Fiennes' older Michael connects past and future in a painfully rendered moment with his daughter (Hannah Herzsprung). The Reader feels distant and cool about something that surely deserves so much more life and passionate inspection. C

Likely bound for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination in just under a week is The Baader Meinhof Complex, which, despite no explicit statements to highlight this, is the story of a group of people whose paths in life are born from the collective guilt The Reader so bluntly explores. Mostly students- with the glaring exception of the Meinhof of the title, Ulrike (The Lives of Others' Martina Gedeck)- the Red Army Faction protest and bomb against the political forces they see as fascism, particularly the support of the American war in Vietnam. Parents are, with the exception on an early scene that mirrors the moment Michael has with his family in The Reader, neither mentioned or seen, but their spectre is hanging over the new generation: these are people who either feel guilty for what their parents did, or else still harbour anger against those who did things to their parents.

The film, though, has within itself various generations- as the founders flounder in prison, a second generation rises. By the time we get deep into this second lot's activities, it feels like an entire film has passed just with our following the now-enprisoned originals. While the obvious effect of our emphasized unfamiliarity with this new generation of militants is to telegraph the idea that this is a neverending, spiralling circle that will spin further and further away from the very point of the faction's point, it is inescapability deadly for a film to spend at least an hour (time lost all meaning, I'm afraid to say) with a bunch of people we don't know and therefore can't care about. Of course, we never cared all that much about the founding members themselves, and when they prove themselves to be even more distancing and fragmented as they crumble within prison walls, the problem doubles, because the film decides to abandon the philosophizing and politics (excepting occasional check-ins with Bruno Ganz, saddled, as in The Reader, with telling us Everything We Need To Know) and hang its forward thrust on the tragic unwinding of their lives. This split is, again, between words and actions: too consumed with explosions and naughty sexual inserts and flashes of documentary footage in its first half, the film then expects us to care when it switches to talk about the increasingly muddled political angle of the group, and worse, their personal struggles. At the point of one tragic event, I suddenly got the feeling that the film was only progressing in this manner because history told it to: it had lost any interest in itself. And an audience can hardly expect to care about a film that's given up on itself halfway through. C

The Baader Meinhof Complex isn't likely to win the Oscar, even if it is nominated- Waltz with Bashir is, you feel, too strong for that- but another film mining Germany history proved to be last year's victor (albeit in the conspicuous absence of both Persepolis and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). The Counterfeiters is actually an Austrian production, and that factoid certainly helps account for the strangely nostalgic attitude the film holds towards what it's depicting. That isn't as bad it might be- although set in a concentration camp towards the end of WWII, this is a camp, as the prisoners note, with soft beds and blankets, a light and polished canteen, and a row of shining ceramic sinks. Why would prisoners get such cushy treatment, you ask? Well, these are prisoners with skills- skills, that is, of counterfeiting. Money, passports- it's what Himmler wants and it's what Himmler will get.

You can kind of see why The Counterfeiters attracted Oscar attention- it's professionally, slightly too slickly done, deals with a dark historical time without really dealing with it and it balances the drama with a touch of humour and that rather odd dash of nostalgic I mentioned (note the bluesy harmonica music. A weirdly incongruous decision.). Thing is, it's a perfectly pleasant film, but despite finishing as a bizarre cross between Schindler's List and Ocean's Eleven, it doesn't leave you with much to say about it. Like The Reader, you feel as though it should treat such a delicate subject with a bit more... well, delicacy. Moral debates exist through the central character (Karl Markovics) and his clash with Burger (August Diehl), the latter of whom continually sabotages the countfeiting line's efforts to succeed, but they feel gratuitous and ring hollow. Sure, it's an extraordinary story, but overload something with cliches and it'll quickly become rote. C

These films- not, as noted, all German productions- all display a strange, and dispiriting tendency- they have the impetus to delve head on into Germany's complex, difficult past, but peter out remarkably quickly, either because they are unsure about what they want to be saying, or simply because they have nothing left to say. Here's hoping that future films mining Germany's past century have the courage to tackle them with the passion and sustaining introspection that it necessitates.


Cal said...

I've seen two of the three (Reader and Baader) and am more favourable towards them than you seem to be.

The Reader - I know it's cold -- especially their relationship -- but how could it not with the nature of Kate Winslet's character. Part of why the film succeeds I think is because it's able to capture the methodical nature of their relationship (the sex, the reading, the lack of pretense) and the tone reflects that.

Baader - I don't get the second-generation stuff either. The second half gets very tiresome, although I think the first half is very good and visually it's impressive and together.

Dave said...

I mentioned in the post why I think that the relationship in The Reader, particularly, doesn't work because where the rest of the film is so clearly from Michael's perspective, that seemed so detached. Kate was cold, sure, but he wasn't.

As for Baader, I was perhaps a little harsh- you're right, the first half was visually impressive and I quite enjoyed it. But the second half obviously dampened any enthusiasm to such a strong degree the first half lost its lustre. If the film had just been the first half, it would have been remarkably better.