Hannah Arendt (Germany/Lux/France 2012)

Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt covering the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.

Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt covering the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.

I fear that I don’t have time to do this marvellous film justice, but I’ll do what I can. At the beginning of the film I found it a little difficult to engage with and I’ve seen criticism of the direction and performances. However, whatever the problem was, I overcame it quite quickly and became completely absorbed. It was only afterwards that I realised what a controversial film it has become. Although there have been the occasional gainsayers, most of the reviews have been very good and Barbara Sukowa gives one of the performances of the year.

Background (There are some spoilers here, but the film is largely based on historical record)

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was a brilliant philosophy student in Germany in the 1920s and her PhD was supervised by Martin Heidegger. He eventually joined the Nazis but she was from a secular Jewish family and left Germany for France in 1933. In 1941 she fled France as well when the ’round-up’ of Jews began and landed in the US, eventually establishing herself as the first female university lecturer at Princeton in 1959. In the immediate postwar period she helped Zionist organisations to take Holocaust survivors to Palestine.

The film begins in 1960 when Israeli agents from Mossad captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and smuggled him to Jerusalem where a show trial was organised. Eichmann was one of the principal administrators of the transport of Jews to the gas chambers and the trial was an international event. Hannah was commissioned to write about the trial for the New Yorker magazine. Even before the trial her friends and colleagues were divided about whether and how she should cover it. By this time, Arendt described herself as a ‘political theorist’ – certainly she wasn’t a journalist and the New Yorker had to wait for the long articles that were published first in the magazine and then in book form as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil in 1963. Arendt’s arguments in her report proved highly controversial for three reasons. Firstly she criticised the whole basis of the trial, since it was an attempt to put an ideology on trial, but only a man was in the dock. Second, she descred Eichmann as a man who had ceased to behave like a thinking person – in his statements to the court he didn’t display anti-semitism as such and he claimed to be an efficient bureacrat. From this observation Arendt developed her ideas about the ‘banality of evil’. Third, she suggested that some Jewish leaders had, through their behaviour in responding to the Nazis in an orderly manner, indirectly contributed to the extent of the deaths in the Holocaust.

Commentary

The film is not a biopic as such. It focuses mainly on the events surrounding the arrest of Eichmann, the trial and its aftermath from 1960 to 1964. There are also two flashbacks to Hannah as a philosophy student (played by Freiderike Becht) and then to a second meeting with Martin Heidigger in Germany after the war. It is a film largely about ‘thinking’ – and the greatest compliment that could be paid to director and co-writer (with Pamela Katz) Margarethe von Trotta is that she makes long scenes of Hannah smoking and thinking supremely watchable. Margarethe von Trotta is the New German Cinema director who has struggled the most to get a decent film release in the UK. Some of her films have had pretty bad reviews but I’ve only seen the two releases which got some support, Das Versprechen (The Promise) from 1995 which I liked a great deal and Rosa Luxemburg from 1986 which I enjoyed, but can’t remember very well. Rosa Luxemburg was another great German Jewish figure, also portrayed by Barbara Sukowa. Margarethe von Trotta has been careful to avoid the tag of ‘woman’s film’ or ‘feminist director’ but it is worth noting that she works closely with other women as creatives and often features women as central characters in her narratives. Hannah Arendt was photographed by Caroline Champetier and edited by  Bettina Böhler.

One of the social gatherings at Hannah's New York apartment.

One of the social gatherings at Hannah’s New York apartment.

A few days after seeing the film I came across the concept of ‘prosthetic memory’ at the Chinese Film Forum (in conjunction with films about the Nanking Massacre in 1937). This suggests that film and other media can act as a kind of constructed historical memory coming between an individual and a historical event. I was profoundly moved by Hannah Arendt, partly through the excellence of the filmmaking and the performances but also because of my own personal memories. I was 11 when Eichmann was captured and I remember the furore surrounding the trial. I didn’t fully understand it at that age but I was aware of the issue and I think it was a defining moment re representations of the Holocaust (though I didn’t know that term at the time). But perhaps as important was the film’s use of costume and hairstyles etc. My mother was born the year after Hannah and she wore similar boxy suits in the early 1960s. The film brought back a lot of memories associated with that time. Margarethe von Trotta’s direction and Barbara Sukowa’s performance captures a thinking woman, but also a real emotional woman in a loving relationship and with a group of friends and supporters. I believed everything that Hannah said and I followed the arguments carefully – but I also responded to her as a recognisable woman. Her relationship with her husband (an interesting character in his own right as played by Axel Milberg) is also very well presented.

I must have missed the moment near the start of the film when Hannah’s American friend is introduced. She is played by Janet McTeer, a remarkable physical presence who defends Hannah like a mountain lion. It was only afterwards that I realised that this was Mary McCarthy whose novel The Group I read as a teenager. I hadn’t previously researched McCarthy’s interesting political background. The only disappointment for me was that Julia Jentsch has such a small role in the film as Hannah’s loyal assistant. She is one of the many German actors in the film which features both English and German dialogue.

Thinking and smoking . . .

Thinking and smoking . . . (photo: Véronique Kolber)

If Hannah Arendt sounds like a film filled with speech and long periods of solitary smoking, it is – but it’s also about ferocious arguments and it includes one of the most impassioned public lectures you are ever going to have the pleasure to watch. If you can find it in a cinema, go for it – I’m hoping we get it in Bradford in December.

Press pack to download.

BIFF 2013 #22: Kill Me (Töte mich, Ger/Fra/Switz 2012)

Adele and Timo escape through the woods.

Adele and Timo escape through the woods.

BIFF19logoThis was the winning film in the European Features competition at BIFF. I saw it in two parts, having to see the opening after I’d seen the rest of the film. I don’t think that this spoiled my enjoyment. The plot is relatively straightforward. Adele is a teenager living on a farm in a remote and wooded area in Germany. Her withdrawn demeanour is briefly sketched in and she barely communicates with her parents. She is surprised by an escaped prisoner who has got into the farmhouse but instead of betraying him she decides, after learning that he has killed someone, to help him. They run away together and she then tells him that she will help him over the border into France – but in return he must push her off a cliff. This unlikely scenario then sets up a fugitive chase/road movie. Two characters must learn to work together and to learn about themselves in the process. The narrative has a form of ‘open’ ending and I won’t spoil any more of the plot.

In the interview below, the director Emily Atef explains that it took her several years to develop the script and organise the production – in fact she made two other features during this period. At one point she was selected for a Cannes ‘Residence Award’ which enabled her to move the development forward substantially. Atef has clearly been on industry radar for some time. Born in Berlin to Franco-Iranian characters she has also lived in the US and in London but now she is based in back in Germany. After watching this film I realised that I have a DVD of her 2005 feature Molly (about a young Irishwoman who travels to Poland). I must watch it again and post on it.

Kill Me is a success for various reasons, not least the performances by the two leads. Roeland Wiesnekker (Timo) is an experienced Swiss actor who suggests a character turned in on himself. He’s tall and dark and bear-like compared to the blonde Maria Vargus as Adele, known in the UK for her role as Klara in The White Ribbon. There is excellent use of landscape and Emily Latef tells us that she received regional funds from Région Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen. Probably most important though is the way that the script ideas are handled. It’s a classic case of not ‘doing a Hollywood’, so at the beginning of the film we don’t get any real explanation of why Adele is so withdrawn and certainly not why she would want to fall from a clifftop. Instead we have to piece her story together from looks and scant plot information. She will later tell Timo something but there is still plenty concealed, especially about his back story, so we travel with the pair never quite sure what will happen. I will reveal that the pair will reach Marseilles which is a ‘liminal’ region, not quite France, but not yet Africa and an iconic ‘end’ to Europe. In the Q&A below somebody asks the director if she ever considered a melodramatic ending. I think we know that she didn’t, though I must say that the location she chooses has been used in the ending of at least one great French melodrama of the 1930s.

The film has been released in France and the international sales agent is the well-known distributer-producer Les films du Losange (long associated with its co-founder Eric Rohmer). I hope they are able to find distributors in other European countries. It is a worthy winner of Bradford’s competition.

Here is the Interview/Q&A when the film was at the Raindance Festival in London in 2012:

BIFF 2013 #3: A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Pash, India/UK/Germany 1929)

a-throw-of-dice-021

BIFF19logoThis print restored by the BFI provides a glimpse of the possibilities of ‘global film’ just before ‘hegemonic Hollywood’ began to exert its control with the coming of sound. German filmmaker Franz Osten had already worked in India on two films with Bengali actor-producer Himanshu Rai – Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia) 1925 and Shiraz (1928). These were the fore-runners of modern co-productions. Osten brought in German crews and the backing of a German studio (Ufa). According to IMDB, two British studios were also involved. The script seems to have had both German and British input into what was initially an Indian story scripted by Niranjan Pal who with Himanshu Rai would eventually set up Bombay Talkies in 1934 as one of the major studios of the sound period. The British contribution seems to have been ‘supportive’ since the main creative and technical roles were undertaken by Germans and Indians. Much of the film was shot on location in Rajasthan.

The 2006 restoration includes a Nitin Sawhney score that I was a little wary of at first but eventually I found worked very well. The camerawork by Emil Schunemann is excellent and at one point he gave us a stunning tracking shot seemingly out of nowhere. The film’s title neatly describes the narrative which involves two kings who are cousins, neighbours and inveterate gamblers in a period before the arrival of Europeans. It’s all fairly predictable stuff in the sense that they compete for the hand of a beautiful girl with one of them rather more devious than the other. But the story isn’t the main attraction – with 10,000 extras, footage of tigers in the jungle and ceremonial elephants, palaces and stunning landscapes, this is an action melodrama (the two terms once meant the same thing).  One thing that struck me about the camerawork was that several of he compositions can be seen as being imported from German cinema and then incorporated in later Indian popular cinema narratives. I’m thinking in particular of some of the fight scenes on cliff tops and a couple silhouetted on a mountain skyline. The spectacular German cinema of the 1920s was very interested in the ‘exotic Orient’ with Murnau travelling to the South Seas for one of his early Hollywood titles in Tabu (1931) and Fritz Lang in aspects of Destiny (Germany 1921). (He would later return for his two-part film The Tiger of Eschnapur in 1959 based partly on his script for another 1920s film.) What we see in A Throw of Dice I think is not so much a German view of India as an example of the potential of Indian cinema to take the technical skills and creative vision of Osten and Schunemann and use them in developing the Indian cinema that would flourish in the 1930s.

Before the main feature (74 mins), BIFF elected to show an extract from Raja Harishchandra, the film usually taken to mark the beginning of Indian feature films in 1913 (and therefore the key film for the 100th Birthday tribute). The film was  originally a ‘four reeler’ of 3,700 feet running around 48 minutes at silent speeds. Producer-director-writer Dadasaheb Phalke had travelled to Germany and to the UK to acquire the skills and the technology to enable him to become the first Indian filmmaker of note, completely in control of his own productions in Bombay. Later he founded Hindustan Films, but the company struggled and Phalke’s brief career which should have flourished in the 1920s was cut short. Nevertheless, he stands as one of the founders of the film industry in Bombay and the Indian genres of the ‘devotional’ and the ‘mythological’. The extract was presented from Blu-ray and there seem to have been problems in transferring the material (I think that the original was lost in a fire at the Film Institute Archive in Pune). I confess that I found what was presented was quite difficult to follow but in 1912 when Phalke was making the film, cinema worldwide was in a state of very rapid innovation. To pick out a few points, there is still a reliance on what might be termed ‘proscenium arch’ shots with a tableau of characters as if on a stage, some occasionally looking at the camera. There are special effects and it is possible to see links to the Ramayana (Phalke is said to have been inspired by Christian narratives). The main plot involves a king who loses his kingdom and his wife and child through various accidents and by deceit but who then recovers them because the gods wish to reward him for his moral integrity.

There is a documentary on Phalke and the making of the film on YouTube (it’s not the ‘complete film’ as it claims) and it’s interesting to see the variety of comments (including the surprise shown by some Indians that Indian cinema goes back so far). Well done to BIFF for showing this and giving us all a chance to consider the whole 100 years.

Lore (Australia/Germany/UK 2012)

Lore

Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) and her siblings with Thomas (Kai Molina) in the background. (Image courtesy Artificial Eye)

It’s only March but here is one of the films of the year in the UK. Lore is a profoundly German story based on a British novel and brought to the screen by Australian director Cate Shortland with a German cast and a mixed Australian/German crew. The film was shot across various locations in Germany by the Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw using Super 16mm. Dialogue is in German with English subtitles.

Rachel Seifert’s novel The Dark Room (2001) comprises three separate stories each of which refers to the impact of the rise and fall of the Nazis in Germany on the personal lives of young characters. ‘Lore’ (short for Hannelore) is one of the three stories/characters. Ms Seifert wrote the stories when she was still relatively young, attracting immediate attention and a Booker nomination. Her parents are German and Australian and this resonated with Cate Shortland who is married to a German. Shortland wrote the script with Robin Mukherjee, a film and TV writer with experience of stories about children.

Lore is older in the film than in the book as far as I can see. I think she is 16 in the film, though she appears both older and younger in this powerful story. It begins in May 1945 at the end of the war in Germany. Lore is the eldest of five children and her father, a German officer, has returned from the East. The family must flee as the Russians are coming from the East and the Americans from the West. The family reach a country house in Southern Germany, but first the father and then the mother effectively disappear, taken by, or surrendering to, American forces. Lore is left with the responsibility of taking her siblings, including a baby, across defeated Germany, through difficult terrain and across the zones controlled by American, Russian and British troops to her grandmother’s house on an isolated part of the North Sea coast. I’m not sure that geographical accuracy is a crucial element of the journey, but we know that it is a long way and that it is a difficult journey. Not surprisingly Lore learns a lot about herself on the journey. Her younger sister and the twin 8 year-old boys are not really able to help her much.

Lore begins her journey as the daughter of a leading Nazi soldier and the one ‘friend’ she makes on the journey is ‘Thomas’, a young man who might be Jewish. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I won’t refer to specific events, but Lore is forced to confront many difficult questions and she is a changed young woman who arrives at grandmother Omi’s house. Powerful filmmaking like this depends on both great direction and performances. Saskia Rosendahl and Kai Molina are excellent, the casting throughout works very well and especially for the group of children who are the main focus for much of the film. The Press Book (available from the Artificial Eye website) gives some useful background on how the film was made. Much of it was shot in Eastern Germany with ruined houses and landscapes of forests and meadows beautifully presented. The cinematography adds to this with its soft textures in Super 16 and the light and mists of morning and the gloom of forests. The press images don’t really do justice to the landscape and mise en scène of the interiors but the official trailer gives glimpses.

I found this imagery and also elements of the story made me think of other films, for example Katalin Varga  another film in which a mother and son take a journey across the landscapes of Transylvania. After the screening, discussing the film with a friend, we both thought of the German concept of ‘Heimat’ that almost indefinable sense of a German attachment to ‘home’/’homeland’. Edgar Reitz made a famous series of films under the title of Heimat from 1984 onwards and indeed there is a genre of German cinema called Heimatfilm which was important in the early 1950s in particular – often set around rural communities with a focus on landscape and folkloric traditions. Heimat was a concept that encapsulated ideas about identity that were corrupted by Nazi ideology in relation to ‘blood and soil’ and ‘Aryan purity’. In that sense, Lore is an anti-Heimatfilm that explores the breakdown of such links and the experiences of young characters brought up within a Nazi family and now facing postwar reality. There is also a German film genre known as Trümmerfilme or ‘rubble films’, a kind of German film noir focusing on the dramas of lives in the rubble of German cities in the immediate post-war years. Most of them were made between 1946 and 1949. The most famous of these in international cinema is ironically a film made by Roberto Rossellini, Germany Year Zero (Italy 1948). As the entry in The Encyclopedia of European Cinema (ed. Ginette Vincendeau, 1995) points out, these films often featured narratives in which the legacy of Nazi ideology played a significant role. Those made in the DDR (East Germany) had specific anti-fascist messages, e.g.  The Murderers Are Amongst Us (DDR, 1946). In this context, Lore is a kind of modern version of a rural Trümmerfilme. The film narrative is not ‘resolved’ as such but we are clear that there must have been many teenagers like Lore who grew up in a domestic sphere, confident about their own future only to find themselves confronted with a very different world.

Lore‘s success in only limited distribution has prompted the British Film Institute to award the first funding offer under the new ‘Sleeper’ strand of its Distribution funding screen. £40,000 is available to help Artificial Eye to release the film in ten further cinemas. This funding is only available to distributors who are ‘invited’ to receive it because the film has had good reviews and good box office response on opening. This ‘responsive funding’ is now easier to make work with digital distribution since copies of new ‘prints’ are much easier and cheaper to get to cinemas. However, it is still the case that there aren’t enough screens on which to show films like this. So, please watch out for Lore coming your way – it’s a film not be missed!

Barbara (Germany 2012)

Andre and Barbara as Bogie and Bacall?

There was a moment when I was watching Barbara – which admittedly means quite a lot of watching the wonderful Nina Hoss – when it occurred to me that if there was a film like this to watch every week, I’d be very happy. When the film finished, my viewing companions surprised me by not agreeing with my sense of satisfaction. Perhaps they’ll comment on this post and explain why?

Many of the press reports have compared Barbara to The Life of Others (Germany 2006) which proved a major international hit. Barbara is similar in theme, but not in ‘feel’. Some aspects of Das Versprechen (The Promise, Germany 1994) seemed more apposite for me. I think director Christian Petzold set out to make a film quite unlike The Lives of Others in its depiction of life behind the Berlin Wall.

The setting of Barbara is East Germany in 1980. Barbara (Nina Hoss) has arrived in a small town in Pomerania near the Baltic coast to take up a new post in a hospital. Gradually we learn that she has been forced to leave a prestigious hospital in Berlin following her request to leave the country. Having angered the authorities with this request, she is now not to be trusted and is therefore subject to routine surveillance in her allocated apartment and suffers doubly in the hospital. It will take her time to sort out who is unfriendly because they think she is a stuck-up metropolitan type and who has been assigned to watch her closely and report back.

Barbara knows the score and therefore she is reluctant to respond to the overtures of Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) who is effectively her boss. He seems warm and welcoming, but is he too good to be true? Forced into moments of close contact (they are paediatric surgeons, working together) he at one point tells her a story to explain why he too has been ‘sent to the provinces’. Is he lying? Zehrfeld, who comes across as a slightly podgy but much nicer Russell Crowe, is very engaging but the film’s production design and cinematography creates a narrative space so pregnant with distrust that we are equally as unsure as Barbara about who to trust. (He clearly is under surveillance himself, but this might be a cover, a double-bluff.)

There is an excellent Press Pack for the film available here (as a pdf) in which Petzold discusses the film at length in terms of what he was trying to achieve and how he and the cast and crew prepared themselves. He tells us, for instance, that the two films that were most important in influencing the story and how he approached it were Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not in which Bogart and Bacall develop a romance in Martinique under surveillance by the Vichy French police in 1940 and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Merchant of Four Seasons. The latter is one of several Fassbinder melodramas which present the feel and tone of life in post-war West Germany. Petzold showed the Hawks picture to his would-be lovers before the shoot and then looked to create something similar to Fassbinder’s mise en scène in representing the GDR in 1980. He argues that in recent films, the GDR has been portrayed in greys and browns – too symbolically drab and desperate. Petzold claims to have steered away from symbolism as such and tried for a very realist presentation, meticulously recreating hospital rooms etc. Certainly he shows the late summer as full of vibrant colours in the fields, but some scenes still seem to have an expressive edge (on several occasions when Barbara makes dangerous journeys by bicycle near the sea in order to secretly meet her West German lover  or to hide incriminating evidence, there is a howling wind blowing). Overall though I think the approach works and the atmosphere is created more by narrative suspense than clunky symbols.

The last section of the narrative is both the most emotional in terms of the potential romance and the most suspenseful. It is also the sequence in which Petzold seems to contrive a thriller narrative with a plot that is either full of holes or too obvious in its direction. I can see these criticisms but neither of them bothered me as I watched the sequence. The careful mise en scène and slow pace – even as the tension mounts – kept me enthralled. I felt both the horror of living in a society where every sound of a motor vehicle or a step on the stair means possible discovery and arrest and the romantic intensity of choosing between security on the one hand and genuine passion but no security on the other. This kind of desperate choice is really what the film is about. I though the film’s ending was appropriate and satisfying and overall I found the film to be humanist in its approach.

Cross of Iron (UK/West Germany 1977)

Senta Berger and James Coburn (Grab from DVD Beaver)

Researching anti-war films for an event, I remembered Cross of Iron. Unfortunately, the current DVD from StudioCanal doesn’t have any of the extras which come with Sam Peckinpah’s Hollywood Westerns – but we do now have several books on Peckinpah that fill in some of the background to the production. The Region 2 DVD is the full length version, the equivalent of 132 mins in the cinema. I think the film was shorter on its original US cinema release. (There is now a Blu-ray disc that does have extras.)

Cross of Iron is a war combat picture set during the German retreat from the Crimea in 1943. It is most definitely not a ‘Hollywood’ film. The production was backed by the final survivor of the UK studio system, EMI, and the package was put together by a German independent producer whose background was in soft porn films. He had little experience of what was intended as a $4 million war film to be shot in Yugoslavia and post-produced at EMI studios in Elstree. Since Peckinpah was by this stage seriously out of control on cocaine and booze and the German producer didn’t have enough money to pay for all the necessary props, the whole thing should have been a disaster. Fortunately the outline story of the book on which the script was based (by Willi Heinrich, published in 1956) was one that Sam could identify with and he became fascinated by the archive footage used in German and Russian propaganda films that he found in Koblenz and London. The opening credits sequence which utilised these archive findings is as good as any of those in Peckinpah’s more famous films. Perhaps only Saul Bass was as good at creating credit sequences as Peckinpah. Bass used graphics, but Sam used editing. Peckinpah followers will recognise the use of children in the credits montage – much as in The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs.

As far as I can see the film extends far beyond the scope of the novel. The Hollywood screenwriter Julius Epstein (of Casablanca fame) was first attached to the project, but Peckinpah managed to ditch him and conducted a complete re-write with James Hamilton and Walter Kelley, two men with wartime experience. The plot of the film is straightforward, focusing on a single Wehrmacht company that is gradually destroyed as the Russians advance. There are several set piece battles in which Peckinpah’s crew attempt to represent major engagements using military equipment (and presumably extras) from the Yugoslav forces. But the real drama is the interplay between Corporal Steiner (James Coburn) and his men and with the three officers played by James Mason, David Warner and Maximilian Schell. Mason plays an old style Prussian Army colonel, Warner (in his third Peckinpah role) plays a seemingly anachronistic cynical/philosophical captain, perpetually drunk. Steiner is a professional soldier who has won the Iron Cross, saving his colonel (Mason). He is now devoted to his men but otherwise alienated from the army. Captain Kransky (Schell) is a Prussian aristocrat, recently transferred from France, who seeks an Iron Cross because his family honour expects it – but Kransky is a coward. Combat is thus as much between Steiner and Kransky as between the Russians and the Germans. The Russians are largely a faceless enemy appearing in great numbers, but first a young boy soldier and then a group of female soldiers are captured by Steiner’s men. These encounters ‘humanise’ the enemy – but they also both end badly and the representation of the women helped to fuel the debate about Peckinpah’s alleged misogyny. I think it likely that the producer insisted on both the Russian women and the bedroom scene with Senta Berger who plays a nurse looking after Steiner in an army hospital. Even so, I suspect Peckinpah wasn’t too unhappy to include the scenes.

What is most interesting for me is the range of responses to the film. I’m relying for background detail on David Weddle’s 1996 book (If They Move . . . Kill’ Em). He tells us that the film flopped badly in the UK and the US, but that it was one of the most successful films of its period in Germany and Austria and generally did well on the international market. I was surprised to find that despite its initial problems, the film now has American fans – its IMDB rating is 7.5. Even so there are many detractors and even some of the Peckinpah scholars seem to call the film wrongly. Several critics refer to this as a film which either depicts ‘Nazi soldiers’ or which ‘de-Nazifies’ the Germans by making the enemy Soviet Communists in a Cold War film. Several US blog posts are just completely wrong in their observations. One I read suggested that “Schell is one of the few German actors in the film”. In fact the entire squad, apart from Steiner and the officers is peopled by quite well-known German actors, helping to explain perhaps why, along with the casting of Schell and Berger, German audiences so took to the film. The same blogger (and many other commentators) see Mason as personifying a ‘good German’ as if this was simply a cliché or something reprehensible. There are few ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters as such apart from Captain Kransky. You could argue that Peckinpah helped to revise the Western by trying to present characters who have been brutalised by experience of violence in as humanistic a way as possible.

I did actually stumble across a neo-Nazi website which validated the film, but which called it a ‘Marxist’ representation of German history. Peckinpah’s politics were quite complex as far as I can see, but he wasn’t a Marxist – nor were his writers as far as I know. But Peckinpah is perhaps a combination of liberal and anarchist. The Peckinpah character here is Steiner who hates the army, officers in particular and his own government. His enemy, Kransky, is an aristocrat. The other officers are professional soldiers. There is only one Nazi amongst the soldiers and he is exposed and then tolerated. Stephen Prince, one of the best-known Peckinpah scholars makes a strange argument in his book Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies (1998) when he claims that Peckinpah misunderstood Brecht in using a famous quote from The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The play is Brecht’s satire on Hitler’s rise to power which uses an allegory about a Chicago gangster. The quote used by Peckinpah is: “Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.” It appears at the end of the film (which lacks a clear narrative resolution, but implies that the main characters in the film are killed by Russian troops). Peckinpah was fond of quotes like this (Straw Dogs opens with a quote from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, which is the source for the film’s title).

Prince argues that Peckinpah aimed to ‘de-Nazify’ Steiner and his squad and that using the Brecht quote was an insult to Brecht. Peckinpah didn’t understand Brecht according to Prince. This sounds like nonsense to me. As I’ve already noted, there is only one Nazi in the squad. The other soldiers are not necessarily ‘good’ or ‘moral’ men, but their loyalty is to each other, not to the Nazi Party. How could Peckinpah not know Brecht? He was a theatre scholar, he read widely and he directed experimental theatre in the late 1940s (see Weddle 1996: 68) He must have been aware of Brecht having been in Hollywood and his subsequent return to East Germany.

I’m not going to claim that I completely understand the closing section of Cross of Iron and therefore the use of the quote. But it seems clear to me that Peckinpah’s overall intention (and that of the writers and James Coburn) was to present the events as evidence of the futility of war and its consequences which included the barbarity of the battlefield and the corruption of the men who fought it. The opening credits montage intercuts images of children, including a Hitler youth group climbing a mountain, with the rise of Hitler and the gradual deterioration in conditions for the armies (German and Russian) on the Eastern Front. (Two separate music tracks are also intercut – one of children singing, one of martial music.) The closing credits repeat the contrast between children and Nazi officers – but now the images refer not just to partisan children executed by the SS and refugees from the front, but also children suffering in more recent conflicts such as Vietnam, the Middle East and Africa. One reading of the opening and closing of the film is that Hitler corrupted a whole generation of children, causing many to be killed or to become killers. In this context the Brecht quote seems appropriate, the corruption certainly hasn’t ended with child soldiers in Africa and conflicts across the world. For me, Cross of Iron works as a statement against war.

Here is the opening sequence (from the Region 2 DVD):

BIFF 2012 #9: Papa Gold (Germany 2011)

One of Frank's increasingly desperate attempts to demonstrate something to Denny

Film festivals are a challenge for writers like me. I generally choose the films I watch after some research, selecting titles because either I think I will like them or because I think they might be important in helping me understand film culture a bit better – including the culture that produces the film. Of course, this leaves out many films that I might enjoy but it means that it is rare that I’m faced with a film that I find difficult to engage with. But at festivals there are certain choices that you can’t always make. Papa Gold is one of the six films in competition as a New European Feature and I found it hardgoing. It’s not my kind of film but I still have to try to be fair to it.

The central character Denny (played by writer-director Tom Lass) is a young man living in Berlin. One day Frank (well played by Peter Trabner) turns up. “Do I know you?” asks Denny. “I’m your mother’s second husband” comes the reply. Frank tells Denny that he now has a half-sister and suggests that he might want to visit and meet her. Frank pressurises Denny into letting him stay, even though it’s only a one-room flat and Denny spends most of his time with a seemingly endless supply of young women – requiring Frank to move out “for a couple of hours or so”. Frank puts up with this because his mission is to persuade Denny to return home and see his mother and new baby sister. It will take us some time to discover why Denny hasn’t been home for so long.

The blurb on the film’s website (it’s made by an independent company set up by the director and his brother who also appears in the film) suggests that Denny is a student. I’m assuming that it is the summer holiday in Berlin, but Denny doesn’t seem interested in anything apart from young women. Frank seems to think that his new stepson needs therapy of some sort and tries to organise it himself. IMDB suggests that the film is a comedy. If there are comic moments, they arise because of Frank’s well-meaning attempts to win Denny round and how they go wrong. I thought this was all rather sad and I don’t remember laughing. I remember also reading a comment that suggested the tagline “Who will mature first”  –which sums up one reading of the plot.

The budget was said to be only €2,500 and if so, the production is a major achievement. Using a Google translation, I’ve found one German website that suggests most of the film was improvised and then rehearsed. The writer praises the film as a ‘fresh take’ on the coming-of-age film and indeed the film has already won an award at a German festival. If anything, Papa Gold felt like an American Independent to me. If I was more familiar with so-called ‘slacker films’ I’d know if that was an appropriate reference. But the ones I have seen were more enjoyable than this. Papa Gold runs for only 77 minutes which doesn’t leave much space for any of the female characters (the mother remains invisible) which is a shame because it is Denny’s inability to make any emotional contact with women that remains the central issue in the film. I’ll be interested to hear what the Bradford judges think of it, especially Joanna Hogg and Wendy Ide. They’ll probably like it more than I did!