Tag Archives: political thriller

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.

En kongelig affære (A Royal Affair, Den/Czech/Ger/Swe 2012)

Mads Mikkelson as Struensee and Alicia Vikander as Caroline (photo by Jiri-Hanzl)

A Royal Affair was a major box-office hit in Denmark in March and has received some rave reviews in the UK and other European territories. It also appears to have done very well in Australia and it will open in North America in November through Magnolia. Perhaps we are seeing the return of costume dramas? The young female lead in this film, Alicia Vikander from Sweden, is next up in the Joe Wright/Keira Knightley version of Anna Karenina. She’s very good and definitely a name to watch.

A Royal Affair is an enjoyable and interesting film for many reasons. In one sense it is a familiar Nordic co-production, a €6 million budget film that easily holds its own against much more expensive British, French or Hollywood productions – demonstrating once again how Lars von Trier’s Zentropa has the capacity to be a major European producer. In the UK, part of the fascination with the film comes from the success of recent Danish and Swedish TV drama series showing on BBC4. The high quality of the performances in the film is enhanced for audiences who can also enjoy spotting familiar faces in the background. What is unfamiliar is the history – I suspect that the intricacies of Scandinavian and German history in the eighteenth century don’t feature strongly in the curriculum in most Anglophone countries. I confess that I had to do some digging to fully appreciate the story which is fairly closely based on the facts of a real ‘royal affair’.

Alicia Vikander plays Caroline Matilda, a member of the British Royal family and younger sister of the Prince of Wales. (Alicia’s father was German of course since the Hanoverian family ascended the British throne in 1701). Her arranged marriage to Christian VII lands her in Copenhagen in 1766 (when the real Caroline was just 15, he was 17) having to learn yet another language (she already spoke three or four). She is beautiful, intelligent and accomplished, but unfortunately Christian is an immature young man who may be mentally ill. Certainly he is unwilling or at least unconcerned about his marriage duties or running his country and Denmark-Norway is a reactionary state governed by a conservative council of ministers. Caroline herself is interested in the Enlightenment and is taken aback when her books are confiscated as ‘unsuitable’. She becomes embroiled, unwittingly at first, in a political narrative in which one group seeks to smuggle Enlightenment ideas into the court, exploiting the weakness of the king, while another, led by the Dowager Queen, seeks to replace the King with his younger step-brother. The agent of the Enlightenment group is Johan Struensee, a German doctor who is appointed as the King’s doctor. He manages to develop a strong bond with the King – and also with the Queen.

Struensee is played by Mads Mikkelsen, perhaps the biggest Danish star of the moment. He’s very good of course but perhaps just a little too rugged as a doctor and self-educated scholar. The King is played by Mikkel Boe Følsgaard who won the Berlin Film Festival acting prize for his performance – while still at drama school. It is certainly a remarkable performance. The three central characters are ably supported in what is on the one hand a relatively conventional ‘illicit romance’ narrative but on the other a powerful political thriller. The romance works pretty well I think and the costumes are gorgeous – I can imagine that the film will be enjoyed by the audience that sought out The Duchess.

The first few scenes of the film seem to promise a strong visual style but really what follows is fairly conventional and presumably limited by budget considerations. It still looks wonderful, however. More to the point, there is so much crammed in to the 137 minute running time that too extravagant a mise en scène might obscure the plot developments. I confess that my attention did wander in the middle of the film – but only for a moment. The script by director Nikolaj Arcel and his writing partner from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Rasmus Heisterberg is based on a novel by Bodil Steensen-Leth. I think it works very well though I do have a few queries. At one point the King is distracted by being ‘given’ a young African boy, almost as a pet or playmate. He is told that the boy escaped from a Dutch slavetrader’s ship. He is delighted by something so ‘novel’. However, Denmark had its own slave ports in West Africa in the eighteenth century. Is this a deliberate obfuscation? The other odd aspect of the plot is that although we meet Caroline’s mother at the beginning of the film, after that we never hear any more about her family. When Caroline is later in difficulties it seems surprising that she never contacts her brother – who was George III, the British monarch and one of the most powerful people in Europe. History seems to suggest that it was the German connection that was the problem. All the royal families of Northern Europe seem to have been interconnected and family relationships were somewhat fraught.

I surprised myself by feeling quite emotional at the end of the film, partly because of what happens to the characters and partly because of the political outcome – perhaps this is a romantic melodrama/political thriller? On the latter score my feeling was that it is all very well reading Rousseau and Voltaire but as a young Queen it is advisable to watch your back and to read Machiavelli.

The official UK trailer: