Son of Saul (2015)
Written & Directed by László Nemes
In the midst of the obscene and the profane does it make sense to eke out some small piece of the sacred? What value do rituals and beliefs have when confronted when the horrific abomination of humanity’s darkest hour? Do we need to shield these artifacts of faith, these dying flames from decimation? First-time feature director László Nemes chooses to film the story with an impressionistic style, almost every single scene so tightly focused on Saul, a Hungarian Jew imprisoned at Auschwitz. The background is nearly abstracted in nearly every scene, our protagonist being shoved along through a seemingly never-ending series of atrocities against humanity. Saul reaches out clinging to a practically useless ritual as a means to disconnect from what is happening around and to him.
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Written Christian Petzold & Harun Farocki
Directed by Christian Petzold
The post-World War II period in Germany has proven to, when used as a setting, provide some of the most atmospheric and rich stories in cinema. You have this sliver of time after the defeat of the Nazis and before the nation was cleaved in half by the Cold War where society was attempting to redefine its identity in the wake of cultural horrors. There were survivors of the Holocaust re-entering Berlin, some with a desire to move past what that had experienced and others never forgetting which of their neighbors betrayed their trust. This is the landscape of mature, nuanced thrillers where each interaction can be dealt with a delicate touch, and shocking reveals are as gentle as a feather yet devastate people to their cores.
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Morris From America (2016)
Written & Directed by Chad Hartigan
13-year-old Morris is an African-American young man living in Germany. His dad is a soccer coach, former player, and his mom passed away a few years prior. Morris did not grow up in Germany, and he is having trouble adjusting to the different culture. His Germany teacher, Inka, suggests he spend time at a community center practicing his language skills and meeting kids his age. Morris reluctantly agrees and immediately becomes infatuated with Katrin, an older girl who teasingly befriends him. Morris doesn’t seem to be meshing with the culture around him, despite his best efforts to explore and absorb. His father also struggles in determining where the line between discipline and freedom lies for his son.
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Dark (2017, Netflix)
Written by Baran bo Odar, Jantje Friese, Martin Behnke, Ronny Schalk, and Marc O. Seng
Directed by Baran bo Odar
In 2019, a local teenager goes missing in the small town of Winden, Germany. Police officer Ulrich Nielsen is reminded of his own brother’s unsolved disappearance in 1986 and keeps promising the parents he will find their son. Then Ulrich’s youngest, Mikkel vanishes in the night and the next morning turns up the body of a third boy, dressed out of the 1980s. Meanwhile, Jonas Kahnwald is dealing the suicide of his father two months prior. He returns to school but finds the girl he liked is dating his best friend. Police Charlotte Doppler senses history repeating itself with not only the disappearances but also flocks of birds falling from the sky dead, just like they did in 1986. As characters travel down this winding path of secrets and mysteries, they uncover a profound and shocking truth about Winden that transcends the laws of time and space.
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Toni Erdmann (2016, dir. Maren Ade)
German music teacher Winfried Conradi is happy in his simple life, playing oddball pranks that no one actually falls for and just create awkward moments. His favorite prop is a pair of novelty teeth he wears and fails to get a laugh out of anyone. His daughter, Ines, is a business consultant working out of Bucharest, Romania currently trying to outsource labor for the oil industry. Winfried decides to surprise her with a visit and discover she not the sort of person he hoped she’d become. Ines has been consumed by her work and adopted a very corporate philosophy through every aspect of her life. The trip goes south when Ines sleeps through a meeting with a client because he father wanted her to get her rest. He retreats back to Germany and Ines goes about trying to salvage things on her end. But then man in a tangled messy wig and novelty teeth pops up calling himself Toni Erdmann. He claims to be a life coach and looks a hell of a lot like Ines’ father.
Toni Erdmann is being referred to as a comedy, but it does everything it can to defy many audiences’ expectations of what makes a film comedy. The traditionally set up and pay off formula for gags is not present. Scenes open without any clear sense of where we are going, and sometimes we get a pin on some moment. Other times the scene just ends, and we move onto the next one. This is all very intentional and not the sign of poor writing. Rather this is a deliberate subversion and makes the film a representation of everything Winfried is trying to do to his daughter. There are some scenes where he pulls the omnipresent novelty teeth from his pocket, pops them in his mouth, begins to play out a bit, and just as quickly slumps his shoulders, and the teeth go back in the pocket. He perpetually seems to be met with incredulity by Ines and her associates. An incidental laugh will occasionally occur but never for the reasons Winfried intends.
Ines is forever frustrated by her father and focuses on gaining the respect she believes she deserves in her very male dominated profession. Her adherence to stepping in line with Western capitalism elicits a quandary from her father about her humanity. That comes at a very tense moment and acts as the crux on which the film flips. She has tolerated him to this point but after this she tells him he must leave. Later, her boss labels her a feminist as he goes on about the direction he believes their business proposal should take. Ines replies “I’m not a feminist, or I wouldn’t tolerate guys like you.” This is less a commentary on a feminism than it is the way in which the world she finds herself is systematically erasing a sense of self. Every decision she makes is calculated based on the effect it will have on her career interests. Winfried seems to believe he can save her through his shtick and that eventually her shell will crack.
Toni Erdmann is a long film, just short of three hours. This is also a part of the subversion. Jokes are meant to be punchy and quick. The film, like Winfried, lingers longer than we expect it to. The awkwardness increases and we wonder when this nuisance will just move along. We also see Ines as the pestered working parent and Winfried as the obnoxious child fawning for attention. Through all of this subversion and intentional annoyance, there is a genuinely real story about parent and child trying and failing to reconnect. It’s a situation many of us have faced as we get older and find ourselves distanced physically, emotionally, and ideologically. Even the way the film brings about it’s “happy ending” doesn’t follow the conceits you would expect to see. Toni Erdmann is a truly bizarre but fantastic film that earns the “it’s not for everyone” motto.
After a recent session with our local roleplay group, my friend Jason remarked that he was looking to get four additional players to play a game he’d purchased recently. The game was Die Macher, one I’d never heard of, but he explained was about German parliamentary politics. The game is notoriously complicated and he was chomping at the bit to play. While these types of games are not necessarily my forte, I nevertheless agreed to give it a try. Maybe it would be fun?
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The Lives of Others (2006, dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
Starring Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme
What if we were able to see Big Brother not as a faceless entity, but as a series of human cogs that make up the machine? And, what if we could see each of those cogs, doing their duty in the name of the state, as an individual human being who possesses empathy and compassion. This is the scenario this Academy Award winning German seeks to explore the humanity of a “Statsi Man”, one of the grey men who did the dirty work of the German Democratic Republic so that the authorities could successfully arrest and detain suspected dissidents.
Wiesler (Muhe) is the best the GDR has to offer in terms of surveillance and interrogation. He’s a natural pick to monitor the playwright Dreyman and his live in girlfriend/actress Christa-Maria. Dreyman has been associating with a number of dissidents and secretly an East German official covets Christa-Maria and wants to ruin Dreyman. Wiesler’s crew wires Dreyman’s apartment and begins his ever constant vigil listening to the daily life of the couple. Slowly but surely Wiesler finds himself becoming captivated with Dreyman’s joy and sadness. The death of a close writer friend cause Dreyman to become inspired to write an expose on the GDR’s efforts to cover up suicide statistics and this puts him in a lot of danger. Wiesler is compromised and must make a choice between his duty to the state and his duty to his fellow man.
Wiesler is comparable to Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Harry Caul in the similar wiretapping film The Conversation. Both men are trapped in a world of paranoiac seclusion. The nature of their jobs planted seeds of mistrust and now they live lives of solitude, only feeling safe when they are alone, yet simultaneously feeling empty. Wiesler is glimpsed mostly sitting alone in the attic above Dreyman’s apartment with headphones on, transcribing what he hears through his typewriter. He finally breaks when Dreyman receives a phone call telling him his friend has killed himself. Dreyman grieves by playing a piece of music this friend gave him and its inter-cut with images of Wiesler weeping.
The film comes to a dark conclusion but emphasizes its hopeful message through its series of denouements. The film wants to remind us that even in the most oppressive of times and the most tightest chokeholds, that human compassion can never be predicted. No matter how loyal a person has become to an authoritarian body all it takes is a brief moment of human connection to forever change that instrument into a full human being.