Monthly Archives: January 2008

Gegen die Wand (Head-On, Germany/Turkey 2003)

The 'chorus' in Head-On

The 'chorus' in Head-On

Director Fatih Akin (b. 1973) is one of the exciting new talents of German cinema. Growing up in a Turkish community in Hamburg he studied Visual Communications and started making short films in the mid 1990s, immediately attracting attention and prizes. Head-On, his fourth fiction feature, won the 2004 Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. There were some comments that perhaps the Berlin Festival was celebrating its own, but the power of the film is undeniable. This is not obviously an ‘art’ film. Akin’s previous features were rooted in the crime and comedy genres and Head-On has a broad appeal as a (in places quite brutal) ‘tragedy-comedy romance’.

The two central characters are both, like Akin, Turks living in Hamburg. Cahit is a 40 something man whose life has been destroyed by the death of his wife and Sibel is a young woman from a deeply conservative Turkish family who is desperate to escape and ‘live’ the life of a liberated young woman in Hamburg. They meet in a psychiatric ward after Cahit has driven his old car into a wall and Sibel has attempted suicide by slitting her wrists. Sibel pleads with Cahit to let her marry him so that she can escape her family. Eventually, he is persuaded to go through with the plan – but the outcome is perhaps not what was expected.

Like several other European directors, Akin is a fan of Jim Jarmusch and of popular music. But Head-On is seemingly uncontrolled with outbursts of violence and almost slapstick humour. Yet it is also a highly intelligent film, both in terms of subject and plotting and in presentation. Cahit was born in Turkey but has lived long enough in Germany to have forgotten both the nuances of Turkish as a language and its cultural mores. Sibel was born in Germany, but her family’s attachment to Turkish culture means that to carry through her plan, Cahit must act like a conventional Turkish suitor. The scenes covering the proposal and the wedding milk the cross-cultural misunderstandings for the same kinds of easy laughs that characterised a British film like East is East (UK 1999). Although a big commercial hit, East is East had its disturbing moments and Head-On too, soon undermines easy laughter with much darker representations.

Questions of Turkish and German identity are to some extent indicated by use of language. British audiences may miss some of this if they don’t notice when characters switch from German to Turkish and vice versa. For instance, in one early scene when Cahit and Sibel are arguing violently on a late night bus about the possibility of a marriage, they are ejected by the bus driver, a Turkish man who calls them ‘godless dogs’ (in Turkish) after they have been arguing in German. In the second half of the film the action moves to Turkey and in order to communicate effectively with an important character who is a manager in a large Istanbul hotel, Cahit switches to English.

Amongst all the techniques derived from genre cinema, Akin also employs a typical Brechtian device in the form of a music ensemble, dressed formally and traditionally, on the shore of the Bosphorus where they perform a number of traditional songs. These form chapter markers, seemingly commenting on the narrative. Neither a wholly mainstream genre picture, nor a realist art film, Head-On works as both a strong entertainment and a commentary on the new Europe of crossing frontiers and forging new identities – or of rediscovering roots and identities. Perhaps not surprisingly, Head-On proved a popular success in both Germany and Turkey. Its festival success led to a wider distribution (including to the UK) than most of the other films made within or about Germany’s immigrant communities. Around 20 million of Germany’s 82 million population are officially ‘of foreign descent’, including 2.3 million Turks.

Roy Stafford (Adapted from evening class notes, first written in March 2007)

The Czech/Slovak New Wave

We are now very used to the idea of the ‘New Wave’, applying it to literature (especially science fiction) and popular music as well as cinema. The term appears to have become current in relation to the French New Wave in the late 1950s and the other two New Waves that have been most foregrounded are the British (late 1950s to 1963/4) and the Czechoslovakian (roughly 1962-68). The one that is left out tends to be the Japanese New Wave at roughly the same time as the British and French (probably because the films weren’t seen in the West). Others followed under slightly different titles — often simply as ‘New Cinema’.

It strikes me that the French New Wave had two major distinctive features – the enormous number of first-time filmmakers in the period (and thus a ‘youth quality’) to much of the work and secondly the development of critical writing from the directors themselves and others. Some of the short dictionary type entries make the mistake of linking the Czech/Slovak directors to those in France, but in fact there seems to have been some antagonism between them. The Czech/Slovak directors were generally well-trained and experienced (unlike Godard/Truufaut etc.) and older filmmakers released ‘new style’ films alongside the younger directors. Like the British, some of the Czech directors used a form of social realism, but others used fantasy and surrealism. Also like the British, literary adaptations were important. Where the French turned to American pulp fiction, Czechs turned to Bohumil Hrabal and other writers. The French New Wave comprised some 200 films mostly made by small production companies, the British New Wave coming at the end of the studio period relied on new companies and state funding in a changing industrial scene. The Czech/Slovak productions all came from state-funded studios but several films were banned in the late 1950s and not released until 1963, the ‘New Wave’ then being a possible in a ‘reform period’ between two bouts of repression. Note that the ‘Prague Spring’ (when the reformist Alexander Dubcek took control of the Czech Communist Party) was just the Spring of 1968, the New Wave started much earlier. Institutional factors are often important in New Waves.

Reference: Alistair Whyte (1971) New Cinema in Eastern Europe, London: Studio Vista

Useful links
http://www.greencine.com/static/primers/czech-slovak-1.jsp
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Czechoslovak_New_Wave
http://www.criterion.com/asp/in_focus_essay.asp?id=8&eid=177
http://www.popmatters.com/film/features/020331-czech-new-wave.shtml
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,839566,00.html

Director Pen Portraits: Milos Forman

Milos Forman (b. 1932) was one of the major figures in the Czech/Slovak ‘New Wave’ of the mid 1960s. He became known for a series of observational social comedies that also satirised the communist state. The four films from this period are:

Konkurs (Talent Competition) (1963)
Peter and Pavla (1964)
Blonde in Love (1965)
The Fireman’s Ball (1967)

Forman and his collaborators (including writer/director Ivan Passer and cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek) found non-professional actors and filmed them in a documentary style. Many of the films included music performances and several of these can be seen on YouTube (search under “Milos Forman”). In 1968 after many years when Czech films were ignored, three were chosen for screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 1968, including The Fireman’s Ball. However, the events of Paris, May 1968, had made an impact on French directors such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard and to Forman’s dismay, they and other French directors picketed the festival and caused it to close. Returning briefly to Prague, Forman saw the Russian tanks coming and decided to get out to America while he still could.

In Hollywood, Forman and Ondricek made Taking Off (1971), a wonderful film that continued the Czech sequence of comedies, this time dealing with middle-class American families whose teenage daughters had run away from home. Several of the techniques adopted for Konkurs are repeated here. The film flopped (it got a wide circuit release in the UK) primarily, Forman argues, because it was a European film without a ‘proper’ ending. Forman went on to have many big hits including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984). His latest film is Goya’s Ghosts (2006), made in Spain with Javier Bardem and Natalie Portman in the lead roles, which reunited Forman with scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière who worked on Taking Off.

Renting, buying DVDs

The good news — MovieMail has a sale on ‘World Cinema’ which includes Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds and Roman Polanski’s Polish feature Knife in Water (for a knock-down £4.99) as well as Jiri Menzel’s Czech New Wave film, Closely Observed Trains that we’ll be looking at in Week 3. If you enjoyed the opening to Liebelei, you might also enjoy Luchino Visconti’s sumptuous melodrama Senso, also in the sale, set in Northern Italy under Austro-Hungarian rule in the 1860s.

The overall picture in terms of getting to see films associated with the course is a little sketchier. My preferred option is to use the rental service from Lovefilm/Sofa Cinema. They are showing Ashes and Diamonds as available and, intriguingly, the other two films in the trilogy as being ‘awaiting release’. This can mean anything, but they may be coming. An alternative is to buy Region 1 versions of these titles and the easiest way to do this may be to use either Amazon (the UK site will sell US discs) or Play.com. You’ll need a multi-region DVD player to watch the discs, but with these sites you can pay in sterling (one tip, buy only one item per order under £18 or you could face import duties).

If you are puzzled about which titles/directors you want to search for, the best current DVD distributor of Polish, Czech and Hungarian films in the UK (especially for 1960s/70s films) is Second Sight, but it’s website is currently not very helpful. However, if you try the other websites and use their search engines and recommendations, you’ll quickly get a sense of what is available.

Director Pen Portraits: Andrzej Wajda

Arguably the major figure in Polish Cinema, Andrzej Wajda (born 1926) will be featured in the first class session. Wajda trained as a fine artist after experiencing the war as a teenager but at age 24 he turned to cinema joining the newly established film school in Lodz. His big success came with a trilogy of films dealing with the Polish experience of Nazi occupation, resistance and subsequent liberation. A Generation appeared in 1955, Kanal in 1957 and Ashes and Diamonds in 1958. These films allowed Wajda to gain a high profile in international arthouse distribution — effectively giving a voice to Poles otherwise trapped behind the Iron Curtain in cultural terms. Later Wajda would repeat this success with two films, Czlowiek z marmuru (Man of Marble) (1976) and Czlowiek z zelaza (Man of Iron) (1981) which managed to satirise Polish politics during the difficult times when workers’ resistance to the communist authorities was growing.

In 1999, when Poland was joining NATO and preparing to become part of the ‘New Europe’, Wajda made Pan Tadeusz, a ‘Romantic epic’ from Polish history and in 2007 his new film Katyn, about the infamous massacre of Polish Army officers by the Red Army in 1940, was a major hit in Poland. In a fascinating interview on the Senses of Cinema website, Wajda explains how Polish Cinema has fared since the Cold War ended and why he has changed the kinds of films he makes. His earlier films were hits abroad but not ‘popular box office’ at home. His recent films have failed to get a wide release abroad, but attracted large crowds in Poland. Has he become a more ‘conservative’ filmmaker serving up nationalist nostalgia? Wajda is offering Poles a chance to think about who they are and he is intrigued by the problem of presenting younger Polish audiences with ‘political’ stories when all they want/have become accustomed to are American-style entertainment films. Ironically, the lifting of censorship has removed the possibility of making political films. In the 1970s people went to those films that got past the censor in the hope of finding some form of critique. Now they don’t bother. This is a problem we will discuss towards the end of the course.

Wajda has his own website (in English) and there are also useful summaries on Wikipedia.