Monday, February 29, 2016

Notes on Nie Yin Niang (The Assassin), by Hou hsiao Hsien, Taiwan/China: 2015

The film is not only a journey into the past (the ninth. Century of China) but it is also for me a kind of travelling back in time. In the late 1980s and the 1990s, Hou hsiao Hsien was among the living my favorite film director. I remember the screening of Beiqing Chengshi (A City Of Sadness) 1990 at the Berlinale-Forum, the traumatic screening of Hsimeng Rensheng (The Puppet master) 1993 at the Montreal World Film festival with the most horrible audience you can imagine for a film where some shots last up to 6 minutes which didn´t detain me from giving the most hysteric applause I ever gave to a film during a festival. I remember also a retrospective of Taiwanese cinema 1996 in a Berlin cinema called Filmkunst 66. The credits of Haonan, Haonu (Good Men, Good Women) were just rolling and the owner of the film theater switched the light on. Even though still with tears in my eyes (because this is for me the most emotional film by Hou) I shouted at him something like: “Let the light out you idiot!” The last film by Hou I was enthusiastic about was Kohi Jikou (Cafe Lumiere) this wonderful homage to Yasujiro Ozu. His Zui Hao de shi guang (Three Times) left me cold even though the first two episodes belong to the finest things Hou ever did and this film is an excellent introduction to the films of Hou Hsiao Hsien. Le Voyage de Ballon Rouge from 2007 was really the only film by Hou Hsiao Hsien which disappointed me and it was for 8 years the last long feature by Hou. Since 2006 my cinephile life turned from a Hou dominated era to a Malick-dominated era and just recently I saw Nie Yin Niang, a period film with Martial arts elements, Hou´s most expensive film with a long and difficult time of production. Interestingly Hou´s studies on Taiwanese history in his great trilogy, his autobiographical masterpiece Tong Nien Wang shi (A Time To Live and time to die) or in Hai Shang Hua (The Flowers Of Shanghai) went always with a search for his own definition of cinema and finally with the cultivation of his unique style.
A period film is in fact nothing which should surprise us if it comes from Hou Hsiao Hsien, because most of his finest films were period films even though much less engrossed through time.
What Hsimeng Rensheng (which begins almost with the the time when cinema was born) already foreclosed especially with a remarkable lightning of interiors, what he continued in the second episode of Zui Hao de shi guang, a silent film leads finally to the lightning in Nie Yin Niang. In the cinema of the West, we learned from Stanley Kubrick´s Barry Lyndon and Terrence Malick´s The New World that the light can be a key to approach a cinematic reconstruction of a far distant epoch of history and it is astonishing that more than 25 years after this daring and experiment with light John Ford did with She Wore A Yellow Ribbon this brave approach was not continued before Barry Lyndon.

Even though Nie Yin Niang begins with sequences in Black and White (most of the film is shot in a format very close to the Academy format excerpt one single scene appears in the 1,85 Format), the film is first of all an excellent colour film with Red, Yellow and Gold tones I haven´t seen for quite a while.
One of the many currents which can be seen in Hou´s work is the dynamic between people who are suffering under history but who are also observing and analyzing what history has made of them. The chronicler in Beiqing Chengshi, Haonan, Haonu, Nilzohe Nuer (Daughter Of The Nile) are women, the real puppetmaster Li Tien Lu in Hsimeng Rensheng appears in documentary moments side by side with Hou´s staged scenes from the pippeteer´s biography. Annie Shizuka-Inoh in her double role in Haonan, Haonu plays Chiang Bi-yu, a resistance fighter against the Japanese who invaded China but also an actress from the present who prepares herself for playing in a mysterious film this very Chiang Bi-yu.
Nie Yinniang in Nie Yin Niang is a full skilled assassin, exiled as a child and trained by nuns as a martial arts fighter is one of these protagonists in Hou´s work who suffer under history but who also begins to analyze it and who finally makes decisions against the direction of her so-called predestined fate. At the beginning we see her fulfilling an order to kill a man. There is hardly any expression on the face of Shu Qi, this actress who worked with Hou Hsiao Hsien since 2001. At the beginning she appears in a black robe as the perfect killer machine and there is no sign of any emotion on her face. Much later when she learns from the nuns more about her history she cries. That will be the only time when we see an emotional reaction from her. What she finally thinks and feels, the film offers only very small hints for that. It is a bit like a historian who knows a lot about historical events but naturally very few about individual biographies. Even though Hou prefers extremely long shots, his narration became since Beiqing Chengshi more and more fragmental. Often he isolates one scene from the other through slow fading outs. He stresses the attention of the audience but finally rewards them with a certain kind of beauty which made him to a singularity in contemporary Chinese cinema. No reason to panic if you feel a bit or even very disoriented at the beginning. Piece by piece a comprehensive understanding will follow. The beauty of this film is encrypted and you have to do a lot to find your orientation and finally you realize that it was worth it. Yin Niang gets a final order, to kill a man she once loved as a young girl, the reason for this assassination is political and for fulfilling this order she has to be this functional perfect killer. First she observes her victim and we, the audience with her. There are incredible long shots where we see the man she is supposed to kill behind thin and almost transparent curtains in the diffuse light of candles and oil lamps. A lot of the scenes, especially when we see powerful people spin their intrigues take place in closed interiors. The open air scenes always are like a release from these muggy interiors.
Like always in Hou´s films there is an exciting dynamic between movement and statics. The few but very precise dosed martial art scenes, a well choreographed dance in the palace or people who are walking through the landscape and than sometimes extremely slow moments where almost nothing moves, people who are almost frozen in their movements, landscapes where you have to look twice to recognize the movement of the water. Sometimes only the wind which goes through the trees is the only evidence of movement.

To watch a film by Hou Hsiao Hsien is very often like watching the elements of which cinema consists are coming together. We can be sure that Hou like Kubrick for Barry Lyndon studied a lot of paintings from or about the epoch the film is dealing with. But it goes far beyond just reproducing old paintings, it gives for moments the uncanny hint of visual culture of a far distant time centuries before you could get an image about nearly everything, if in cinema, television or Internet. In these films like Nie Yin Niang, Barry Lyndon and of course The New World, the cinematic apparatus is first of all an artificial time machine. The time revealed in front of our eyes might be strange and very engrossed but for some moments and especially in this strangeness we have a key to an epoch lost in time.

What we learn about the protagonists and especially about this female assassin remains fragmental. Moments of rising empathy will disappear at the end. We get glimpses of things and people which do not exist anymore.

At the end, Yin Niang finally decides not to kill the man she once loved and leaves for a new chapter in her life, the perfect functioning killer who is discovering her own humanity goes her own way.
As a matter of fact, some of Hou´s final shots are in themselves pure cinematic masterpieces, the ending scene of Beiqing Chengshi, Hsimeng Rensheng, Haonan, Haonu and now in Nie Yin Niang. Hou has an extraordinary sense how to leave a film, a sense for the transition of the things he reveals in his films and our reality outside the screening his films. In Nie Yin Niang we see a group of people on their departure, including Ying Niang. We hear already a mesmerizing music and the picture lasts for a small eternity until the landscape is totally deserted by any person, than the first credits and finally the and the black of the final credits. appears. The last moments of a film by Hou Hsiao Hsien are probably some of the most ceremonially moments cinema has to offer. These moments when the fiction totally disappears, we are alone with the monstrous beauty of this film and paradoxically and despite we often like to categorize Hou as a minimalist these last moments have always an uncanny impact on me. One thing for sure, Hou Hsiao Hsien is back with his finest film since Kohi Jikou.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Friday, February 19, 2016

Notes on Fantastic by Offer Egozy, USA: 2016-Berlin Filmfestival 2016 VIIII.-Forum

The only comment I read on this film which I can remember is; collegiate (in the sense of amateurish) up to the costume design”, a short note from a critic whose opinions I do not appreciate at all but who is very reliable in not appreciating the films I like or which find at least worth to see.
Fantastic evokes an important question in me: How to move freely through this high complex phenomenon called cinema with its huge variation of forms, genres and sub genres? There is no quick answer I can offer but I think this question is a good study for a study of this film which goes more into depth than my modest notes.
Whenever I use the term “playfulness”, I do it only as an expression of appreciation. Egozy calls his film “a pastel noir”. The plot offers elements of film noir and mystic thriller and there  are probably a lot of citations from the history of cinema. 

The film takes place in rooms especially designed for this film and open real locations. The costume design is interesting. It is very colourful and the kind of design has mostly a tendency to traditional East and Southeast Asian clothes. If I am not mistaken there was also a moment with Indian music but I am not sure anymore
A wise young Indian friend of mine once wrote in a note, I think it was on Edward Yang´s A Brighter Summer Day that” there is the film we just see and the film that is kept in our memory”  Fantastic was one of the films I saw very early in a close press screening and all I have is the memory of a film I saw more than a week ago. I might have forgotten details but I still remember this strange dreamlike mood. It evokes in me the two different kind of “extending” an experience with a film. The first kind goes back to my childhood when I had seen a film which left a strong impression on me. As a child I used to play what we call today “spin-offs” with my brothers, sisters or with friends. The second kind is to have a very long chat with friends after such a film experience. As we are seldom or never dressed like the characters in a film, the striking costume design and it´s seeming  discrepancy with the plot offers a special inspiration. When we the talking with friends about a certain experience with a film - which can include citations or imitations of certain gestures and dialogues from a film - that  has is s own magic. A film with the inevitable limit of it´s length becomes suddenly a nearly infinite field of imagination.
Just alone the title Fantastic evokes in me this special feeling. The film is not just a collection of citations from a genre but rather a fantasy about a certain kind of cinema and herewith very close to what I told before about this two variations of extending the experience we made with a film.
I remember a very good statement from Martin Scorsese in Stanley Kubrick - A Life in Pictures by Jan Harlan. Scorsese is defending in an interview Kubrick´s against accusations  that the New York how it is presented in his last film Eyes Wide Shut is phony. He says: Yes, it is not the real New York but it is the New York how you can dream it.” Scorsese´s words are as well a good help for me to find a kind of orientation in my memories of this film. Offer Egozy´s Fantastic, shot in 35 millimetre and in cinema scope reminds me in the reasons why I love cinema.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Sat Feb 20 Akademie der Künste 14.00

Notes on Avant Les Rues (Before the Streets) by Chloé Leriche, Canada: 2016-Berlin Filmfestival VIII.-Generation

This is a film from Quebec, entirely about a Native family, a native community and recorded almost entirely in the Atikamekw language. The first scene presents two young natives: Brother and sister are singing, accompanied by a drum in front of an old cabin near a river. They sing in their language. I did not understand a single word, but the beauty of this moment blew me away. They are in harmony with each other, with themselves and finally in this first seconds of the film with the world. These moments are rare in Avant Les Rues  because the world these characters are live in is usually permanent changing and often very confusing. But whenever the young Shawanouk sings together with his sister there are moments of pure cinema - or in other words - the film itself comes very close to one of the big meanings of cinema to define one´s own place in the universe.

The environment of this native community is desolate it looks rather like a provisional camp than what we call a home. There is a cross over between the problems of this native community and any other communities in the world, the lostness. Often the characters are straying around like homeless phantoms in underexposed images. Sometimes you can hardly recognize anything. The images changes from graphic to abstract and the other way around and the images changes also often between darkness and light.

Shawnouk is involved in a robbery and by accident, a man is killed. The feeling of guilt becomes a burden to heavy for this young man. Once we hear him saying “I am lost” This feeling has an adequate visual analogy. Literally the characters disappear often into the darkness like in bad preserved film material which is in the process of decay. Visually two forces are evident in this film, the separation of the characters from their environment  - and even more - from each other and the force to return to themselves, to the persons they love and to the world. The self (re) discovery of a young native his (re) definition of his place in the world can be retraced visually in moments of pure cinema.

There is a total justice between the physical and the mental life how it is presented in this film. The physical presence is something cinema can reveal directly, about mental conditions cinema can only give an idea. When the young man can´t deal anymore with his feeling of guilt he tries to attempt suicide. His family saves him in the last moment. From this situation, Leriche creates a moment of an memorable heartbreaking moment: Kwena, Shawnouks beloved sister embraces her brother and the mother embraces her daughter.  There is a fourth person in the room, the boyfriend of the mother, a policeman and the outsider of the family. He is placed in this image on the very right side and he touches the arm of his girlfriend. The cinema scope frame shows four human bodies who are connected with each other. This four bodies fill the whole frame of the cinema scope format. It is an effort to live against the abyss of death and it is also in its physical traceable intensity a moment of a Malick-like beauty. It is again an underexposed image and this moment is like an affront to the darkness which is threatening to swallow the remains of light. 

After a process of healing, Shawnouk sings a song. It is a very long shot. He sings, stops and sings again. The words I do not understand. What the film reveals is the sound of his voice and the expression on his face – but there is also an idea about about it means a voice comes from the depth of the soul. There is nothing didactic in this film and there is not even a trace of exotic but a convincing work with the materiality cinema can offers- or like the great French film critic André Bazin once said “the things must reveal themselves.”

There is also a very sophisticated use the cinema scope format Like I suggested in my notes on Delisle´s superb Chorus this format was once invented by the industry against the threatening danger of the rising Television but very soon used by the auteur-cinema, from Ophüls to Godard or Antonioni. Like Delisle, Leriche uses this format in its dynamic between opulence and to reveal our lostness in  this world.
At the end Shawnouk and his sister Kwena are singing again. The problems they have to define their place in the world might not have been solved completely but they make an effort to find their way. There are no words how much I love these moments when Kwena and Shawnour are singing together. They literally assert themselves a world which  is always in danger to go apart and cinema at all becomes a painful unbearable yearning for a world we might have already lost. Avant Les Rues, the first long feature film by Chloé Leriche is quite an exciting  discovery.  

Rüdiger Tomczak

Fri,  Feb 19 Cinemaxx 3   14.00
Sat, Feb 20 Zoo Palast 1  15.30

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Notes on Sairat (Wild) by Nagraj Manjule, India: 2016-Berlin Filmfestival VII.-Generation

Sairat is one of only 2 films from India screened at this year´s Berlinale.
It is a film in Cinema scope and it is nearly 3 hours long. My first impression – or better the first word -  which came into my mind is the “breathless”. During these 3 hours, the film goes through several metamorphoses. It happened often during this screening that I had an idea in which direction the film is moving and than – it turns to another direction, I never expected. It is both, an odyssey through different forms and genres of cinema and an odyssey through modern India between consumer society and ultra orthodox Hindu caste ideology. It is a film which overwhelms sometimes with the use of everything the apparatus of cinema can offer and in the next moment this apparatus unmasks itself as a machine which manipulates time and space. It is a film where the artificial constructed reality of a film is in a duel with that what we call the reality beyond the illusion of cinema, a fight between two mighty beasts.

At the beginning, it seems to be a commercial though very well made film with all, commercial Indian cinema can offer, well choreographed musical elements, romantic love story and last but not least slapstick aspects. We follow a track which will deceive us very soon.

The starting point is very simple. Boy loves girl but the girl is from a higher caste. When the boy Parsha tries to approach the girl Aarchie, it is for now romantic comedy, musical and slapstick – and the slapstick elements are delegated mostly to the supporting characters. The threatening of this young love appears at the beginning in well dosed hints. The film pretends we are safe because it seemingly does not want to be more than cinematic spectacle. And for cinema the film offers at the beginning a beautiful metaphor. In this village there is a big well, where the youngsters if girls or boys enjoy to bath and swim. The well is cinema, discotheque and meeting place at the same time. The cinema is like this well, it does not know the difference between caste class, religion, ethnic group etc. Friend sare warning Parsha that Aarchie´s upper caste family will kill them. One of them says that "life is not cinema with all its romantic love stories. And suddenly the film changes it´s tact. The hunt begins, Aarchie and Parsha flee from the village hunted by Aarchie´s family. After an odyssey the young couple finally reaches a big city. They are safe for now but suddenly reduced to the fight for surviving in a slum. The film which turned into a thriller becomes now a social drama. Their love will be challenged because in a slum there is no romantic. Romantic love is now replaced through doubt and morbid jealousy.

Even though we do not know in what direction the film will move now, there is an increasing feeling of uneasiness. The big city has both, the wrong promises of prosperity and the abyss of a life which consists only in a fight for the naked surviving. The couple goes through a crisis and later there will be a reconciliation like in Murnau´s Sunrise. But now when it seems that the young couple finally found happiness the the acidly sight of the world of an Erich von Stroheim manifested in his apocalyptic masterpiece Greed seems to invade this epic film. They have a child and Aarchi tries to make up with her family. The family finally sends a delegation of the same persons who hunted them earlier. They bring gifts for the child. There is a delusive petty bourgeois peace in this film. The television propagates permanently commercials about the prosperity in modern India. They do not live in a slum anymore but in a clean and comfortable apartment. And this Mody-India this fatal mixture of neo-liberalism and open caste based threats of fascism literally implodes under it´s own gravity.  And suddenly the film turns silent, not even music appears.  With the decease of the soundtrack the mighty apparatus of cinema the film is made with with and the 170 minutes seem to be reduced on this very moment.  Sairat, turns in its last metomorphosis into an apocalyptic and disturbing film which will stay with me as the most fathomless cinema experience of this year´s  festival and it proofs that the children, - and youth section is in it´s diversity the most interesting part of this morbid institution called Berlinale.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Feb 20, Cinemaxx 1                        10.30
Feb 21 Haus der Kulturen der Welt 16.00

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Notes on Rudolf Thome – Überall Blumen (Rudolf Thome – Flowers Everywhere) by Serpil Turhan, Germany: 2016-Berlin Filmfestival VI.-Forum

For Shaan and Thérese

At the beginning and near the end we see prints of films by Rudolf Thome lying in piles of rusted canisters, moments which are not only just sad but depressing. Film prints in rusted canisters – two films I saw in recent years at the Forum come to my mind, the wilful destruction of the nearly complete film heritage of Cambodia by the Red Khmer in Davy Chou´s Le Sommeil d´Or (Golden Slumber, 2012) and prints of Indian films in a former film studio near Bombay ( now part of the Puna Film institute) in Prabhat Pheri (The Journey with Prabhat, 2014 ( by the film students Jessica Sadana and Sammarth Dixit. In this film, an important part of German film history decays literally almost  in front of my door.

The world premiere of Rudolf Thome – Überall Blumen, yesterday at the Delphi film theatre was quite memorable. There was laughter everywhere and it evoked in me a likely memorable screening of Truffaut´s Les Qautre-Cent Coups in 2014 at the Cinematheque in Paris. In Paris like yesterday in Berlin, the ages of the audience variesd between those who could have been companions of Thome´s or Truffaut´s early films, people in my age who discovered Thome in the 1980s, and very young  people who could be my children or Thome´s grandchildren. When I discovered one of my favorite films by Thome, Berlin Chamissoplatz, the filmmaker Serpil Turhan was still a baby.

Rudolf Thome – Überall Blumen is a bit like Ozu´s Bakushu, a seemingly bright and often funny film. The melancholy is subliminal. When the film becomes a memory the slight feeling for this melancholy one had during the screening becomes stronger.
The film is entirely shot at Thome´s converted farm in Brandenburg and one of the miracles of this film is the perceptible relationship between the portrait of Rudolf Thome and the environment. This never looks constructed but it is filmed with a somnambulistic lightness.

Serpil Turhan was involved in Rudolf Thomes work as a main actress in his “time travel-trilogy” which includes one of his masterpieces Rot und Blau (Red And Blue, 2003) and later as an assistant. But in this film, Turhan focuses mostly on every day rituals. Conversations about the different kinds of brushing the teeth in some of his films, Thome appears as a gardener, a lover of birds or as a father etc. Once we see him writing the screenplay for his film Writing a script, we know from his Moana-Blog (Link),  is for Thome a public affair which you can follow life in the nternet – from the handwritten notes until the finished script.This creative process is embedded in a nother every day ritual.

There is a balance between long interviews and a kind of still life shots of the natural environments of this converted farm and the landscape of the village, a balance between long conversations and moments of silence. The pond of his garden is cleaned and we see croaking frogs. The excitement of Thome when he has filmed red starts, the daily work on his blog but than as well conversations about the obligatory self staging of Thome, the director who is now filmed by one of his actresses. The order in this film is not based on Thome´s filmography and there is no real volitional hierarchy between the so-called banal and significant moments of his life like it is presented in the film´s  interviews.
Between Thome´s pleasure in gardening, bird watching, bicycling  and every day rituals – there are moments of losses: the coincidental birth of his youngest son and the death of the wonderful cinematographer Martin Schäfer, the abandoning of his Film. Later they are talking about the death of another son of Thome but also about the late Marquard Bohm, one of Thome´s favorite actors.

There is a barn where Thome collected several clapperboards from different films he made. The titles are still written on it. In another moment, Thome tells that he has still stored the costumes once designed for Hannelore Elsner who played in several of his films in the 2000s. He is frustrated that no archive is interested in these costumes. In these moments, Rudolf Thome – Überall Blumen has a bit of an elegy on a great filmmaker which is abandoned by film historians.
I can´t get these images of the film prints in rusted canisters out of my head, they present for me the drastic endangerment of what we call the film heritage. These are the drops of bitterness in this beautiful affectionate and strangely moving film portrait.

Among the films made by one filmmaker about another one, Rudolf Thome – Überall Blumen by Serpil Turhan belongs to me with  films like Kohi Jikou (Café Lumiere, 2004) Hou Hsiao Hsien´s homage to Yasujiro Ozu, or Ekti Nadir Naam (The Name Of a River), Anup Singh´s homage to Ritwik Ghatak to the most beautiful films in recent years dedicated from one filmmaker to another.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Feb 20, Arsenal 1                    19.00
Feb 21 Akademie der Künste 14.00

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Notes on Woorideul (The World Of Us) by Yoon Ga-eun, Korea: 2016-Berlin Filmfest 2016V.-Generation

I do not know if the English film title is a correct translation but it is a very good title. “Coming Of Age” films were made in nearly all periods of the history of cinema – and nearly in all geographical regions. Woorideul is one of them, a story very often told but with a surprising refreshing approach. Yoon Ga-eun uses a lot of close-ups and medium shots in this film about girls at the age around 10. Their quarrels, their mobbing against each other gets a special weight. Usually quarrels among children are often trivialized by adults. In a lot of scenes the world of children is isolated from the world of the adults. The “little worries” of the girls, their quarrels and yes - the sometimes shocking psychological cruelty made me often breathless. There is nothing really “cute” in this film and just during the first 20 minutes, I was quite impressed about a sharp observation of this young filmmaker just very near to Yasujiro Ozu or Hong Sang-soo. Sometimes childhood seems here like a hotbed of social discrimination and prejudice. The little brother of Sun often fights with his friend and gets often injured which is again trivialized by Sun´s parents. Cruelty between children seems to be invisible for the adults. Only the teacher sees the cruelty that the parents don´t see or don´t want to see. The problems of the adults, in this case the parents of the girls drop very subtle in the world of children. Sun´s father is an alcoholic and has a very difficult relationship to his own father who is going to die. Sun´s mother is occupied by her own work and very busy to ensure the economical surviving of the family.
Another convincing aspect of this film is the use of an almost unforced plot. Events rather happen than being invented. The worlds of the adults and the worlds of children are sometimes isolated from each other and when they cross over, nothing good happens. Sun´s father, the drinker seems to be a loser, an image his daughter has as well to struggle with in school.

The “Coming Of Age” film as a very important sub genre in the history of cinema has two legitimate aspects, one is the dream of the lost paradise of childhood, the other aspect is the long forgotten nightmare of childhood, the obvious and subtle cruelty children are exposed to. Woorideul (which is belongs to the second variation) is a merciless anti- nostalgic look on childhood. But it is as well a film full of subtle cinematic intelligence. Just to mention the small flat where Sun´s family lives in, how the small family is moving in it in the contrast to the much bigger house where Sun´s classmate Jia lives with her grandmother offer an exiting visual relationship between human beings and space.. How these children move through very spacious or narrow interiors or in open space is only one example for a refreshing clear cinematic approach. It is a very serious film because the directors takes her young protagonists very serious. The so-called “small quarrels” give already an idea of the world these girls will grow into. But like always, cinema can offer both, a painfully precision in looking to the world but as well a certain affectionateness. There is also a certain sincerity in this film and a huge confidence in its audience if the very young or old one.

What I already guessed and what I have read later in the director´s statement in the press map was about the autobiographical inspiration for this film. Well, for a film which is such sincere, a film where any emotion seems to be rather lived than invented -  it does not surprise me at all. Woorideul is the first long feature film of a young Korean filmmaker called Yoon Ga-eun. And it is both: a promising look into the future of cinema  but at the same time it seems to be made with the wisdom of an old master.

Rüdiger Tomczak


FRI, Feb 19 Haus der Kulturen der Welt     10.00
Sun Feb 21 Filmtheater am Friedrichshain 15.30

Monday, February 15, 2016

Notes on Bakushu by Yasujiro Ozu, Japan: 1951-Berlin Filmfestival 2016 IV.-Berlinale -Classics

Why Bakushu is presented as a “Berlinale Classic”, I really don´t know. In the last 12 years it was screened at this film festival only in retrospectives. But than, who cares?
Among at least a dozen masterpieces, Bakushu has a special place in my heart - and that for exactly 28 years!.It is a very paradox film: at first it is even for Ozu a unique film. He “wanted to show the cycle of life without any dramatic Ups and Downs”. The film consists rather of a series of episodes, each of them as beautiful as a haiku. In fact it is Ozu´s most radical narrative experiment. On the other side it is as well one of his most accessible and most charming film. I know it is meaningless to put one masterpiece of Ozu against another one, but Bakushu (wrongly translated with Early Summer) is exactly what Wenders once said about the films of Ozu, a lost paradise of cinema”.
Most of Ozu´s films are about every day life and every day characters but Bakushu has a slightly cosmic dimension. The lines of sight in this film leads often to the heaven (the old couple watches a balloon which got loose), the sight of the mother to an undefinable direction until she accepts that one of her sons who is missing in the war will never come back or the scene on the beach of the sea with one of Ozu´s rare camera movements which literally simulates the rotation of the earth. A likely moment we find as well at the end of a film made in the same year, Jean Renoir´s masterpiece The River.
Last but not least, Setsuko Hara who passed away in September 2015 (maybe the Berlinale screening is finally a homage to Setsuko Hara) offers here probably her finest performance. Her Noriko in this film can be rebellious, she has a lot of humour and she has the grace of the countess Almaviva in Mozart´s La Nozze de Figaro.
Bakushu is a film with a nearly uncanny and perfect balance. Always when I remember this film (exactly 124 minutes) it becomes an own endless universe itself.
If there is a film in the history of cinema which offers a sense for the transience of life than it is this phenomenon Bakushu. Behind the banality of every moment one can always feel the infinity.
One of my favorite moments (okay the film seems to consists of favorite moments at all) is when the grandfather makes a small walk to buy bird seed (!). He has to stop at a railroad crossing. The crossing gates are closing, a train passes by. With a sigh he sits on a stone and waits and we wait with him. There is no describing of this moment which gives justice to the impact it had on me. The force of the passing train seems to be the equivalence of the force of the inexorable passing of time.
One reason that the universe of a film by Ozu is always expanding beyond the limited length are the memories of the characters which go far back in time. And we are only privileged to see this temporary limited segment of their life. Ozu tried this once again, once in Soshun in 1956 and once in Akibiyori in 1960. The brother of Noriko who is missed in the war is present in the memories of this family.
For what reason ever Bakushu is screened at this festival under “Berlinale Classics” (a 4K Digital restoration) , it offers one of the most precious gifts cinema has ever originated.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Mon Feb 15 Cinemaxx 8 19.30
Wed Feb 17,Cinemaxx 8 12.00

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Notes on Kate Plays Christine by Robert Greene, USA: 2016-Berlin Filmfestival III.-Forum

For Annie Shizuka Inoh

Actually it is a film where two different films arise from and sometimes they cross over each other. The first one is a research for the traces of Christine Chubbuck, a news reporter who committed suicide during one of her shows in front of the camera in 1974. That caused speculative headlines but the event (which inspired Sydney Lumet´s Network)is almost forgotten and only very few remember Christine Chubbuck. The second film is a documentary on the actress Kate Lyn Shell who makes researches for preparing herself for playing Chubbuck in a (fictive?) feature film.
At the beginning the actress Kate Lyn Shell works like a reporter and sometimes even like a detective. She interviews friends, the family and colleagues of Christine Chubbuck. She even talks with a legal arms dealer who sold the revolver to Chubbuck – the weapon she killed herself with. She studies news articles and footage from several shows by Chubbuck. Less interested in the suicide itself, Shell tries to find traces of this now almost forgotten identity. Literally it is a search for a lost soul. The other part of her work is to overcome the lack of a physical resemblance with Chubuck with the magic of make up, a wig and even the use of a sun studio for approaching the right teint. At the beginning Kate Lyn Shell reminds me more in Charlotte Gainsbourgh and sometimes in Anna Karina. Rather ingenuous compared with the hard feature of Chubbuck´s face with that embittered expression.

Kate plays Christine reveals both, the physical metamorphosis of Kate Lyn Shell into at least the image she and the filmmaker have of Chubbuck. But there is as well the invisible mental metamorphosis, the hard work to give this image of a person who has gone a kind of soul. The real identity of Kate Lyn Shell with wig, make up and in a designed costume or the the performed Christine Chubbuck seem to be sometimes very close in an uncanny way.

In some of these moments Kate Plays Christine evokes in me the memory of two masterpieces on acting. The first one is Ruan Ling Yu aka Center Stage by Stanley Kwan from 1992 on the legendary Chinese actress Ruan Ling Yu which is composed of documentary, staged scenes and orginal excerpts from films with this actress. The second one is pure fiction, Hou Hsiao Hsien´s Haonan, Haonu (Good Men, Good Women, 1995) where a young actress who was drug addicted in her past and had a relationship with a gangster is preparing for her role as a Taiwanese resistance fighter against the Japanese invaders in World War 2. What Kate Plays Christine has to do with these two films is that we witness the hard work of acting which includes the physical but as well the intellectual challenge. But we get also an idea about the mental challenge to play a strange person which we actually can´t see. Acting finally is to lend the body to a strange and reconstructed soul.

There are the moments when Kate Lyn Shell walks through the deserted house of Christine Chubbuck or on the place at the beach in Florida where her funeral took place. It is hard to say if Shell is preparing to perform a lost soul or if she herself is lost in this very moments.Like Kate Lyn Shell we become more involved in the tragic life of Christine Chubbuck, we witness her researches.

We are not always sure if the emotions and moods the tragedy of Christine Chubbuck evokes in Kate Lyn Shell are just tools she has to work with or is there something which touches her own emotions, her own life. But we are not always sure either if our emotional or intellectual participation while watching a film, reading a story etc are emotions evoked by a film we see or a book we have read – or if there is finally a point where evoked and real moods, thoughts and emotions of ourselves cross each other?

And Kate Lyn Shell is a kind of agent between us the audience and that what the film reveals like for example, Konkona Sen Sharma´s wonderful performance in Shonali Bose´s Amu (2004). Literally we experience in Kate Plays Christine what it means to embody an identity which is no more. We see like a film, including a performance is made. The film we remember hours, days or even weeks later might differ. Just one night after this film, my mind is still "editing" and "re-editing" the film I saw on this memorable evening. This strange fascinating, thought provoking but also moving fused “double feature” which I call “Citizen Christine Chubbuck” and Citizen Kate Lyn Shell” seems to be a film I will stuck with for quite a long time. Robert Greene´s Kate Plays Christine is one of these film which are journeys to the centre of the Cinema.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Mon Feb 15 Cinestar 8                   19.15
Wed Feb 17 Cubix 9                      20.00
FRI  Feb1 9 Akademie der Künste14.00
Sun Feb 21 Zoo Palast 2                22.00

Friday, February 12, 2016

Notes on Midnight Special by Jeff Nichols, USA: 2016-Berlin Filmfestival-II.-Competition

"A science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content.” 
Theodore Sturgeon

The German pioneer of fantastic literature E.T.A. Hoffmann once said that the author must offer the reader a ladder where he can climb by himself from the reality to another fantastic world. This sentence about fantastic literature is still useful for cinema and like in this case for science fiction films.

The film begins like a thriller: two men and a young boy are escaping in the middle of the night with a car. The only strange thing is that the boy has special strange looking glasses. They drive by nights and like so often in films with Road Movie elements, the story is enfolded during a journey. The fantastic elements develops from real landscapes, highways, country roads, service stations and strange houses in the middle of nowhere. When they drive by night, the mysterious boy reads super hero comics. In contrast to the invincible super heroes the boy who has as well supernatural abilities remains a child who is scared. As the story enfolds we learn about that this group. The men are Roy the boy Alton´s father and Lucas, a friend of Roy since school. They are hunted by religious fanatics who see in Alton a kind of Messiahs but they are hunted as well by FBI, NSA and CIA who consider Alton´s abilities as a thread for national security.
Like in the  first long film by Jeff Nichols  Shotgun Stories or in his previous Mud, outbreaks of violence happen like an explosion. During their escape a police man is shot, later two men of this religious sect are shooting at Roy and Lucas. These are short and ugly moments and nothing seems to be stylized.

It is also a family story, because they meet later in the film Alton´s mother who once abandoned the child. Like in his wonderful Take Shelter (which has also a slight science fiction element in the character´s apocalyptic night mares), the composition of family drama in Take Shelter and Midnight Special, the adventure or science fiction elements in Take Shelter, Mud or again Midnight Special are sometimes fusing together, another time they keep a certain independency from each other. That makes it difficult to point the finger on the special magic in the films by Jeff Nichols. And it is not easy to say where exactly Nichols set a certain effect or where this effects results from the “ladder of E.T.A.Hoffmann” - or in other words -  is the cross point between inspiring moments of this film and our own imagination?

For my side a key moment in the films by Jeff Nichols is the end of Take Shelter. We finally accepted that Michael Shannon´s character is mentally ill and paranoid, his visions of an apocalyptic storm a delusion. But than when he plays peacefully with his daughter on a beach, scaring clouds announce the destructive natural catastrophe from his night mares. But the actual moment which left me breathless is this glance from Shannon to Jessica Chastain and her confirming nod back to him.

Nichols never gives the mystery away, he rather give hints and small suggestions.
It is characteristic that a big part of Midnight Special takes place in the darkness of the night and in some moments it is hard to recognize anything.

And again Michael Shannon offers an adorable performance. Here his character is a likely lost and introverted man but again very credible as a common man and there must be some truth in in when Wenders once said that “American actors are minimalists by nature”. But it seems in all films and TV series I have seen with Shannon, he is never as fascinating like in Jeff Nichols´ films, Other try to let him act, Nichols let him be.

Even though the film has a fantastic showdown rather unusually for Nichols even this opulence does not harm the mystery atmosphere. Like Take Shelter, Midnight Special ends with an expression in Michael Shannon´s face and that is only one of many things which will stay with me. I think there is no need to repeat the frequent comparison between Nichols and America´s finest living director Terrence Malick. But there is a quote from David Fincher on Malick: “a cinema outside of Hollywood but very American in its sensitivity”. That does not only describe Malick but in other ways directors like James Benning, Richard Linklater or Matt Porterfield and it is also a good hint to the films of the young American filmmaker Jeff Nichols.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Sat, 13.Feb Haus der Berliner Festspiele 11.00
Sat, 13, Feb Friedrichstadt Palast 12.00
Sat 13 Feb Haus der Berliner Festspiele 21.30

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Notes on Ottaal (The Trap), by Jayaraj Rayashekhan Nair, India: 2014-Berlin Filmfestival2016-Genaration

I am often puzzled why the Berlin Film festival became over the last two decades a nearly india-phobic festival. Among the few films from India screened at the Berlinale in the last 20 years, there were some wonderful films, strong enough to question this what I called India-phobic tendency of the Berlin Film festival: Vanaja by Rajnesh Domalpalli, (Genaration 2007), Pushpendra Singh´s Lajwanti (Forum 2014 ) or this almost umknown masterpiece Vahir by Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni (Generation 2010)or the provocative Gandu by Qaushiq Mukherjee (Panorama 2011)etc. In its diversity, India is probably the most interesting film country today but since film festivals are more following trends than they used to do 20 years ago, India is not in fashion at all, especially among big A-festivals.

Ottaal is an Indian adaption of a story by famous Russian writer Anton Chekov called Wanka. The story is totally transformed into Indian environments. First of all from the first minutes there is a strange fatalism. The fate of an 8 years old boy who is an orphan and who has only his grandfather is already sealed. At the beginning we see this boy crowded in with other children abused for child labor writing a letter to his grandfather.
The flashback which takes the biggest part of this film framed by a sad opening and conclusion takes place in a seemingly idyllic landscape. The grandfather who takes care of this little orphan breeds duck swarms. In the evenings they tell each other stories. At the beginning the life despite the loss of the parents seems to be light, Ducks swimming on a river and there are a lot of cute ducklings to play with. But very soon this idyll is revealed as very trappy and here the English title The Trap has a very special meaning.. The poor boy can´t afford to go to school which means in countries like India a very harsh handicap. And very soon even the cute ducklings leave a bitter after taste, because they are brood for a special purpose, eggs and finally food. A dubious truck driver always remind the old man that his grandson is better served as a working child in a factory. Even though illegal, there are people who pay a lot for children on the black market to press them for work into dubious factories. Later when the grandfather gets sick he finally accept that the child is going to a factory “where he can learn”. The film leaves it ambivalent if the grandfather is really ignorant about the consequences of child labor or if he just does not want to know about it. 

As the films seems at the beginning a bit didactic there is a more abstract level when the part of the film when the boy is “still free” This part of the film seems to try to free itself from the merciless fatalism the opening already established. When the child plays with a dog or with ducklings, there are moments in this film which Wim Wenders would call “just to film without the need to proof anything”. Almost contemplative we dive into this strange landscape where stories are waiting to be told on every corner. The irrational hope for a better ending for the boy and probably for the emotional participating spectator encounters at the beginning the subtle borders, the impossibility of school for the poorest, the old age of the grandfather. And sooner or later one realizes the film as a memory of a child of a world which has gone. At the end he dreams of a letter he sent to his Grandfather, a letter which probably never will be written. The children are kept like working slaves and finally what the film already suggested in its opening, there is no way out. Cinema can evoke strange things. This reality of child labor seems geographically very far from us in the West, but it was once reality in Europe and its dark past – and still at that time when Chekov wrote this story.What prevents me from categorizing this film as simply didactic is the dynamic between a very playful and partly opulent story telling and a very beautiful cinema scope photography and the purpose of the film to point to child labor. As the film takes place most of the time in these memories of a child whose life is destroyed and even if these memories often reveal a very delusive idyll - they are the only things which will remain of this young human life. Interestingly it remembers me a bit in Dalton Trumbo´s Johnny Got His Gun especially in its extreme contrast between memories, traces of lost happiness and the harsh reality.

Rüdiger Tomczak


Wed: 9.30   Zoo Palast
Thurs10.30 Cinemaxx 1
Fri     10.30 Filmtheater am Freiedrichshain