Daily Archives: March 19, 2011

BIFF 2011 #3: Ferien (Vacation, Germany 2007)

Karoline Eichhorn as Laura and Anja Schneider as Sophie

German-Turkish auteur Thomas Arslan is one of the festival guests appearing alongside a five film retrospective. This feature was the first of the five to be shown. As the title suggests, it belongs to the genre of family dramas set in holiday retreats. In the UK this is usually restricted to the wealthy middle-classes and programmer Neil Young suggested an affinity with UK director Joanna Hogg’s Archipelago (2010) in his introduction. I haven’t seen that film, though I had major problems coping with the characters in her earlier film Unrelated (2007). The class issue seems more to the fore in certain French films but Arslan’s family here seemed remarkably ‘ordinary’.

The family house belongs to Anna and her second husband Robert and is situated in the woods and lakes of Brandenburg, north of Berlin. During the Summer Anna’s two daughters visit from Berlin. Laura is with her husband Paul and their two small children. Sophie arrives later seemingly after a long absence. The son, Max, who is younger is still at school and spends much of his time with his girlfriend during the holidays. Finally Anna’s mother arrives, also from Berlin.

The drama arises from Laura’s problems with her marriage which, though evident early on, aren’t explained until later. Laura’s behaviour also irritates her mother when she suggests that the house is now too big and Anna should think of moving back to Berlin. Robert bought the house and he isn’t inclined to move. As far as I can see, all the children were brought up there. However, the area was originally in East Germany and Laura and Sophie would have been born before re-unification. None of this is explained/explored but presumably a German audience would be aware of nuances. Max is taunted by his mates to the extent that his father looks “a bit weird and dresses like a tramp” – is this a veiled reference to an East German past?

Anna is also disturbed by her mother’s health. She is clearly ill and has refused to get medical advice. Is it now too late? All these questions/problems are explored in a sensitive way and the film is beautifully photographed and edited. The calm long shots of the woods and pathways and the rustling of the wind help to create an ambience of rural tranquillity with suggestions of storms on the horizon. But the film doesn’t feel like a family melodrama. The two small children play happily on their own and with each of the adults. The screaming anger is confined to a few scenes. My main reaction was to be grateful for an insight into family life in a different European tradition. Although I enjoy a full-blooded melodrama, I can appreciate a quiet drama like this when it is presented so expertly. On the other hand, not a lot happens and I wasn’t surprised to learn that the film doesn’t appear in Lumière’s database of European cinema films apart from a brief outing in France. Ferien was funded by the publicly-funded German TV channel ZDF and broadcast over the public cultural TV network Sat3.

I’m now intrigued at the prospect of more work from Arslan. I understand that he usually works with small budgets but has used non-professionals in some of his earlier work. Here the cast includes well-known German actors. Arslan is also one of the directors associated with the so-called ‘Berlin School’ (as a graduate from Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin (dffb)). This term has now been used much more loosely but still marks the recognition of the emergence of directors who don’t make conventional films about the Nazi period, the Stasi or re-unification. This useful Cineaste article maps out the background.

The film is available from Amazon UK as a German DVD import (Region 0).

Here’s what appears to be a ‘music video’ which shows the visual style (I don’t remember the song being in the film):

BIFF 2011 #2 Disfarmer: A Portrait of America (Canada 2010)

One of the thousands of Disfarmer portraits.

Three things make a great documentary; riveting subject matter, a clear structure, aesthetic and narrative coherence; an engaging commentary and/or witness statements. Disfarmer manages all three of these in spades and the experienced documentarist Martin Lavut provides a riveting 52 minutes of entertainment and enlightenment.

The oddly named Mike Disfarmer (1884-1959) was a portrait photographer in a small country town in Arkansas, operating throughout the 1930s to late 1950s. He changed his name from Meyer and was undoubtedly a local eccentric. He also took extraordinary photographs of the ordinary people of the region – formal studies of men, women and children who stood in front of a simple black or occasionally white backdrop. But somehow he caught these people in largely unsmiling poses, revealing something about themselves. For many years after his death his work remained simply as a collection of family photos held by numerous individuals in the region. Then a small archive was discovered by a New Yorker who moved to Arkansas. A book of prints followed and then, several years later, Disfarmer prints began to become collectable and a gallery showing followed, ‘institutionalising’ the Arkansas man as an American photographic artist.

Lavut’s film tells this story concisely, clearly and with panache. The ‘witnesses’ include people who knew him in Heber Springs, Arkansas – both as a businessman and as the photographer who ‘frightened’ them as children – and the collectors, buyers and gallery owners from New York. I’ve rarely heard a more eloquent and open bunch. The septuagenarians from the South were most entertaining – as was the music from Bill Frisell.

Here’s a clip from the film showing both the photographs and the witnesses:

The Disfarmer website offers a chance to study (and buy) more of the images.