Wednesday, November 26, 2008

11th Festival of German Films

Still from Beautiful Bitch28 November - 4 December

This year's Festival of German Films features a co-production strand and a focus on the documentary maker Andres Veiel.

Intentional or not, the themes of politics and families run through the programme for the festival. Sometimes, as in Lenin Only Got as far as Lüdenscheid (dir Andre Schäfer), one finds both. In this ironic documentary, Richard David Precht recounts his upbringing in 1960s West Germany, being raised by leftist parents and dreaming of life as the head of the East Berlin zoo in the the fantasy land of the GDR.

With an extended family that includes two adoptees from Vietnam, there is plenty of scope for drama, while mentions of Baader-Meinhof and shots of protests provide the necessary backdrop, as the country goes through its own growing pains, ending with reunification and a family reunion in Denmark.

Alex, the hero of My Mother's Tears (dir Alejandro Cardenas-Amelio), also has an unconventional family, which encompasses the residents of his group house in West Berlin in the 1970s after he and his parents flee the Argentine dictatorship. His gift for moving things with his eyes proves more help than hindrance, and he observes with unease his dad's struggle to settle in "the island of Germans". It is a compelling story with wonderful moments of invention, as when dad's drawings come alive and in the films shot by the household.

Meanwhile, over in Absurdistan, the residents of a small village find themselves left behind once the Soviet Union crumbles and as their ageing water pipe collapses, their water supply dries up and the village divides along gender lines. Veit Helmer's allegory is enlivened by bits of surrealism but let down somewhat by crude humour.

Inter-generational conflicts provide the fault lines in Cherry Blossoms - Hanami (writer-dir Doris Dörrie), as the well-ordered life of elderly couple Trudi (Hannelore Elsner) and Rudi is disrupted when she dies and he tries to live out her dreams in Japan by visiting their son there, having discovered their other two kids in Berlin have no time for them. The sacrifices his wife made for him and the family haunt him and he realises how little he knows of his family. The most perceptive characters are the outsiders: the daughter's girlfriend (Nadja Uhl) sees both parents in a way the kids never do.

Late in the film, as Rudi bumbles around Tokyo, the character of Yu appears, and if she's a bit ditzy and overly mannered, she does represent a less rigid character who helps Rudi connect with his departed wife and some risk-taking in himself. It is also amusing to find "ah so" exists in German and Japanese.

The documentary Two Mothers - The Search Began in Riga considers the very meaning of family, as filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim searches for his biological mother and father and uncovers some uncomfortable truths. His adoptive parents were part of the occupying forces of Riga and his investigation into his origins moves between Berlin and Riga, as he tests out hypotheses: was dad a photographer? A Nazi? Could his mother be Jewish? Along the way he meets a range of characters from devout nationalists and apologists to historians. In the end he simply cops out and decides it's better not to know.

In Beautiful Bitch (dir Martin Theo Krieger), 15-year-old Bica is cut adrift from her brother and homeland of Rumania as she arrives in Dusseldorf and takes up the life of a pickpocket. When she meets the spoiled Milka and streetball coach Andrej she hopes to find friends but is constantly under threat from her "patron", the odious Cristu.

The premise is intriguing and the promises made to easterners about the west that lead to exploitation and greed are well-rendered, but the film deteriorates into melodrama and the relationship between the girls is not developed. It's not believable that a few games of streetball and some dancing would create a real bond so much so that Milka says Bica is her first real friend. And what's up with the black-clad girl who appears sporadically to ask (backwards) if Bica will be her friend?

Drifter (dir Sebastian Heidinger) is a well-shot but very slow observational doc about street youth living around Zoo Station in Berlin. This is perhaps a nod to Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo but with no sensationalism. Aileen, Daniel and Angel live on the streets visiting shelters in between shooting up and taking clients when they need money, but there is little drama to their lives, just the sensation that they are wasting away, while complaining of being undercut by those even lower on the social scale--Poles.

With no voiceovers and no interviews, it relies purely on observation. The worst scene is Aileen giving a blood sample and finding her vein is too scarred from heroin injections. In the credits is a thank you to Andres Veiel, who has several showings at the festival and will be a guest.

The festival screenings are mostly at Curzon Soho, with some at the Goethe Institut.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

7 Women No Cry

Cover of 4 No Woman, No Cry
The 4 Women No Cry series on Monika Enterprise collects four international female artists on one CD, in a kind of sampler. Label boss Gudrun Gut chooses four up-and-coming artists and allocates each 20 minutes. It's a way for listeners to hear lots of new music in one place.

The third volume, featuring artists from Europe, South America and the USA, is very much a late-night listen--gentle, melodic and dreamy.

It opens with The Sound of Lucrecia, from Colombia, probably the most pop of the four. Her voice reminds me of someone I can't quite place.

Manekinekod, from Greece, is more experimental and quirky, using typewriter-like sounds on "Room 302" and a spoken vocal on "Like In the Movies".

The American Julia Holter sounds a bit like Stereolab on "Neighbor Neighbor" and like Solex on "Minerals", while "Measure What More" has a music box feel. Not sure about the Valley Girl spoken vocal in the middle, though.

Album closer Liz Christine is based in Brazil but doesn't sound at all Brazilian. Her music is more electronic and features a lot of animal samples, especially on "Dreaming". Headphones would probably make the lyrics more clear but they have an intriguing not-quite-audible sound.

It will be interesting to hear how this translates live when a selection of artists from the 4 Women No Cry series congregates for two gigs in Germany. 7 Women No Cry, on 26 November, marks the opening of the Worldtronics festival in Berlin and features seven performers: The Sound of Lucrecia, Julia Holter, Manekinekod, Dorit Chrysler (Austria/USA), Tusia Beridze (Georgia), Mico (Japan/GB) and Rosaria Blefari (Argentina).

The second is on the 28th in Leipzig and features four acts: The Sound of Lucrecia, Manekinekod, Tusia Beridze, and Rosaria Blefari.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Baader Meinhof Complex

Poster for The Baader-Meinhof Complexdir Uli Edel

Viewed at the London Film Festival, Edel's controversial film finally opens across the UK. Based on Stefan Aust's book of the same name, this is the long-awaited cinematic telling of the campaign in the late 60s and 70s against the West German state by the Red Army Faction (RAF), also known as the Baader Meinhof Gang, which resulted in firebombings, assassinations and several questionable deaths in German prisons.

Onscreen this becomes a lot of smoking, shooting and yelling with the odd anti-US slogan but little coherent vision, either for the group or the film. At the end, the transgressors die, and so the morality is quite conventional.

Much has been said as to whether the film glamourises terrorism and cultivates a cult of personality around such figures as Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), the three leading figures in the film. More on that later.

For me, there is a huge void at the centre of the film and that is Ulrike Meinhof. As portrayed by Gedeck (marvellous in The Lives of Others), Meinhof is tentative, anxious, indecisive and held in no great esteem by the rest of the group, who consider her bourgeois. She has so little presence and appears so passive, that one wonders how she came to be a figurehead: she displays no leadership qualities whatsoever. What she does contribute, as a recognised left-wing journalist with access to the media, is good PR: her typed missives gain a following for the RAF. In short she is the PR mouthpiece rather than leader.

The driving force within the RAF rather seems to rest with the power couple of Baader and Ensslin. Here is a symbiotic relationship, with Baader's adolescent swagger egged on by Ensslin's revolutionary fervour combining to form zealotry. At times they are a comical duo, with him purring "Baby" to her and the two cuddling in strategy meetings or in prison.

Baader and Meinhof have very little interaction, other than him bellowing at her when she suggests more planning in their actions and her responding with a baleful stare. One waits in vain for her to assert herself in the film, and she strikes a rather pitiful figure, as if she can't understand how this terrorism thing happened to her. Most odd. In fact, Ensslin and Meinhof display more chemistry---their dynamic ranges from mutual suspicion to camaraderie to betrayal, with the two squabbling in prison like an old married couple, while the men look on, bemused.

As for Baader, he is invested by Bleibtreu with a lot of gusto, charisma and ridiculous bravado, brandishing a cigar as he plays to the gallery in his first trial. Early in the film, as he swaggers around in his leather jacket, driving at excessive speeds and firing a pistol out of the car window, one senses his role model is Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless. Indeed, in Jürgen Teipel's book, Verschwende deine Jugend, one finds that a lot of German punks identified with Baader and that he sought inspiration from Belmondo's role in Pierrot le Fou.

Ironic, then, that 31 years after his death he finally becomes a leading man. But Baader comes across as a bit of a buffoon. A quintessential alpha male, he expresses himself by throwing chairs and torrents of verbal abuse rather than any reasoned arguments or political theory, in a manner more Basil Fawlty than Che Guevara. Casually peppering his antagonists with racist and homophobic slurs and posturing arrogantly, he offers no coherent explanation for his actions. The film is, in fact, remarkably lacking in providing a theoretical framework for the group's actions, with the exception of tiny extracts from Meinhof's tracts.

The participation by women in RAF remains a fascination. That so many women were drawn to a terrorist group and achieved leading positions is unusual. The film depicts many women coming and going, but Astrid, Ingrid, Petra, Susanne, et al are indistinguishable and their motivations remain unexplored, which is a pity.

The exception comes two thirds of the way through the film when a key figure suddenly appears: Brigitte Mohnhaupt (Nadja Uhl), who becomes the new leader of the second wave of the RAF. Released from prison, she quickly arranges a sexual assignation and then sets about planning the next stage of the group's activities. Her steely determination and efficiency in martialling the troops are in stark contrast to the ineptitude of the first wave, whose leaders managed to get arrested for breathtakingly stupid lapses. Mohnhaupt is quite a striking figure, and the actress bears a disconcerting resemblance to Nico. Should a biopic ever get made on the singer's life (and why hasn't that happened?), surely Uhl would be a leading candidate.

If the film does provide opportunities to glamourise the RAF leader, it also shows the cost of the group's actions, with gory, bloody, bullet-ridden assassinations depicted, balanced by police brutality and an attempted assassination of student leader Rudi Dutschke. The message seems to be: violence begets violence.

Dutschke's shooting in 1968 is an interesting inclusion. Not a member of the RAF, he is shown as inspiring many youth to protest against the Vietnam War and there is a long sequence showing his attacker stalking, confronting and shooting him several times. Blood spurting from his mouth from several wounds, Dutschke stumbles, falls and appears an absolute goner, but miraculously survives and promptly disappears from the film until much later on when he appears at the funeral of Holger Meins, an RAF member who died on hunger strike.

That draws a parallel with the other particularly graphic scene: the force-feeding of Meins in prison. If one duty of the state is to give everyone a fair trial, provide representation and to protect them in custody, then clearly it fails in this instance. By including this scene, the film attempts to recognise the humanity of people, no matter their extreme ideology and to suggest that nobody deserves to be treated with such brutality. This message is especially timely, given that it is considered acceptable for states to hold suspects for indeterminate time without charge or trial. Equally trenchant is a police investigator hunting the RAF suggesting that those in power must change the conditions that lead to terrorism.

The Baader Meinhof Complex provides few insights into what turns political activists into terrorists, being more interested in action than motivation. As such, it is dramatic, powerful, violent and gripping. But the question asked so many years ago by Marianne Faithfull in "Broken English" remains unanswered: what are you fighting for?

The Baader Meinhof Complex opens in the UK on 14 November.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Slits Reunion

The news that the re-formed Slits are performing at this weekend's Ladyfest Manchester marks a coup for the festival. I am a bit envious. I saw a version of The Slits back in 2004 but didn't really feel it qualified, as singer Ari Up was the only original member and had brought a group of New York session musicians over to London for the gig.

This lineup, however, includes Ari Up, bassist Tessa Pollitt and guitarist Viv Albertine, and so is truly worthy of the name. I never thought it would happen. When I interviewed Albertine in 1996, I asked her about a possible reunion. This is an excerpt from an article I wrote for Scene Update in 1997:

Obviously, the world needs The Slits, but would they ever re-form? Viv doubts it. “Tessa [Pollitt] reckons we should do it when we’re 65. Little old ladies. That is very Slits, actually, to be really old and do it. That’ll look great with the guitars” she says, cackling. “Fantastic.”

So, they are early by a good number of years! The Slits will also play in London on 3 December.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Annie Leibovitz: a Photographer's Life, 1990 - 2005

National Portrait Gallery
Through 1 February 2009

After touring the USA, Leibovitz's exhibit arrives in London. It starts, puzzlingly, with images of US Olympic athletes, some of them quite Riefenstahlian, such as the diver frozen against the sky. Then it moves on to some celebrities and landscapes. And isn't that Susan Sontag?

What does this jumble mean? Well, the answer lies very much at the end, in the room given over to her proofs. While leafing through her work in 2005, she realised she'd separated it into commercial and personal. It was then that she decided to fuse the two into one exhibit, the personal and profession merged to illustrate her one life. Interesting.

Why in 2005? As documented in her photos, death had recently claimed her father and her partner Susan Sontag, while Leibovitz had recently become a mother. Clearly, some reflection was in order and assembling a book and exhibit was part of the photographer's grieving process.

And so this mess of an exhibit begins to make some sense, because it is difficult to understand otherwise why one would want to juxtapose shots of Scarlett Johansson pouting with shots of Sontag being treated in hospital. In truth, an exhibit of the personal photos would have been much more enlightening. But perhaps not so marketable.

The shots of Sontag, the kids and Leibovitz's parents, especially the ones in 35mm black and white, are intimate, personal and powerful. By contrast, the Vanity Fair covers and other assignments are glossy, colour, large format, and ultimately hollow.

Leibovitz herself comments that she doesn't consider herself a great studio photographer and yet this is what she's become known for: the big Hollywood assemblages with armies of assistants--more Cecil B Demille productions than portraits. So, why pursue that line? Surely, at this stage, she can't need the money or the kudos. [2009 edit: Ah, but maybe she does.]

It's also troubling to note that it's only after Sontag's death that Leibovitz feels able to acknowledge their relationship. In photo after photo, whether in Jordan, Paris or New York, Sontag appears, mostly not named but quite visible. And the shots of her sprawled on couches or in bed, draped in rumpled sheets, speak volumes about the intimacy between them.

But in life? Never a mention, except as the "close friend". The saddest photo in this collection is the one that's missing: the one of Sontag and Leibovitz together.

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