High and Low: a crime thriller of downfall and redemption, and a plea for compassion for material and spiritual suffering

Akira Kurosawa, “High and Low” (1963)

Most movies based on pulp crime / police procedural novels rarely exceed their pulpy inspirations but legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa seems incapable of sticking to the style of the original source material, in this case an Ed McBain novel. No, no matter what sources he uses, be they ordinary crime action scribblings or Shakespearean plays, his films become meditations on human nature and society, and enter the panoply of great classic films. “High and Low” is one such of his works, if perhaps underrated because it’s set in the present day rather than in an exotic mediaeval Japanese past of samurai honour. Kurosawa teams up with equally legendary Toshiro Mifune, playing a ruthless businessman, and a capable no-nonsense supporting cast to bring to the screen a straightforward crime thriller with a timeless plot of downfall and redemption and a plea for humanity to rediscover precious lost values of compassion and consideration for others’ suffering.

Kingo Gondo (Mifune) is planning to buy out his partners in National Shoes and to that end has mortgaged his hill-top mansion to raise the loan that will enable him to take over the company and run it the way he wants. (Admittedly his partners want to convert the shoe-making operations into making cheap shoes for easy profit whereas Gondo believes in making long-lasting quality items that will ensure a regular income stream in the long term.) On the verge of achieving the buy-out though, Gondo receives a mysterious phone call from a stranger claiming to have kidnapped his son. The catch is that the stranger has actually kidnapped his chauffeur’s son Shinichi. The stranger demands a huge ransom that, if paid, would totally ruin Gondo – but if he does not pay, the child will surely be killed. Ever the Machiavellian, Gondo declares he will not pay in spite of his wife and chauffeur’s pleas and the recommendations of the police investigating the case.

The film divides into two unequal halves: the first half takes place almost completely in Gondo’s home, acquiring a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere and focusing on Gondo as he wrestles with other people’s demands and his obsessive desires; the second longer half, taking place in parts of the city beneath the hill where Gondo’s home is located, deals with the police search for the kidnapper and bringing him to justice. In this section, Gondo is no longer the main character though his downfall is made fairly obvious; the film becomes a cat-and-mouse game with the police led by Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) pursuing the kidnapper and closing in on him by setting up a sting operation in which they pretend that two heroin addict accomplices he has killed are still alive and are (irony of ironies) extorting him for more junk.

The film’s minimal presentation throws attention onto the tense plot and the characters themselves as they deal with the emergency at hand and its aftermath. Mifune’s understated acting is commendable and demonstrates clearly the dilemma Gondo is placed in, his obsession with maintaining his status and family’s comfort and how eventually he is transformed by the results of the decision he finally makes. Being portrayed as a hero by newspapers for the decision he does make (under pressure from others, not because of his conscience), Gondo becomes a humbler man (though this transformation is not shown) and on meeting the kidnapper at the end of the film, seeks to understand his motives for Shinichi’s abduction.

The film achieves its epic status in many ways: it highlights the class differences between Gondo and the people he comes to rely on to rescue Shinichi and recover his money; it shows something of what motivates Gondo and the kidnapper, the social and economic gulf that separates them, and how their differing motivations and the resulting behaviour might lead one to redemption and the other to damnation; and then it adds ambiguity and irony to suggest that the one who is redeemed does not really deserve it after all. This is all done with a well-structured plot that moves quickly and generates plenty of tension, in a city where social and economic contrasts are great and each is a comment on the other. Few films are able to combine rich psychological study, a tale of downfall and redemption and an engrossing police investigation all in one.

A trite plot and character stereotyping can’t lift “Paris 2054: Renaissance” from bland SF thriller genre

Christian Volckman, “Paris 2054: Renaissance” (2006)

A glossy animated style of minimal black-and-white presentation, emphasising detail, mood and atmosphere in a future Paris governed by corporations through panopticon-style surveillance made possible by hologram and other future cyber-technologies, ultimately proves inadequate to save this film from tired character stereotyping, a dull formulaic plot and shallow treatment of its films. All that we take away from the film is that the elites, whether political or corporate, or bad and that whatever they lust for and pursue is for their own self-interest and profit while the hoi polloi must continue to resign themselves to serve them. The film ultimately can offer no more than an attitude of “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”(“the more things change, the more they stay the same”) with an accompanying implication that humans are incapable of change, overcoming their self-interests and desires, and creating a better society.

The thriller plot follows the fortunes of police detective Karas (voiced by Daniel Craig in the English-language version) as he searches for young kidnapped scientist Ilona Kasuiev (Romola Garai), held somewhere in an oppressive tech-noir Paris. He relies on Kasuiev’s associates who include her sister Bislane (Catherine McCormack), with whom he has been acquainted on a more personal level in the past, and her employer Avalon Corporation, to find possible reasons for her kidnapping. As he delves further into his investigation, he discovers that Kasuiev was involved in a secret corporate project to recover the methods and results of an experiment on children suffering from progeria – a genetic condition in which sufferers experience premature ageing – which might hold the ultimate genetic key to staving off ageing and death, and achieving immortality. At the same time that Karas finds revelations about Kasuiev’s work, sinister agents are following him and learning what he learns. He becomes romantically involved with Bislane as well.

Triteness oozes from nearly every pore in the plot and its characters. The romance between Karas and Bislane is never convincing and seems to have been thrown in simply to inject some James Bond frisson and the notion that Karas is somehow more than just grim crime-busting operative into a shallow plot and a one-dimensional main character. Likewise an unnecessary car chase is added into the story; the illogicality of such a car chase in a story and setting where surveillance is so pervasive that the chase could have been ended by the police before it began (a helicopter or a drone could have shot the runaway car from the air or forced it to stop by hacking into its electronics) needs to be overlooked for the cheap thrill the ruse adds. It’s as if director Volckman and his script-writers couldn’t trust the premise of a panopticon police-state Paris enough to allow the story to develop naturally and suggest its own narrative that could intrigue their audience and make viewers aware of their guilty pleasure as complicit with those overseeing the city and its life; and instead forced the sci-fi vision into a lame thriller plot in the belief that the public will prefer the familiar and the generic over the innovative, the unusual and the experimental. What an insult to the public’s intelligence!

The plot, shorn of its unnecessary convolutions, and the animation would have worked well enough together for a shorter film and the twist ending, when it comes, would have made much more of an impact. As it is, the film becomes something of a torture to sit through as it limps to its resolution and perceptive viewers might guess that both hero and kidnap victim receive very unpleasant shocks when they meet. Somewhere along the way, the film’s message – that life with all its highs and lows only has meaning when ended by death – ends up being submerged by too many clichés.

The American Friend: an investigation into the nature of individual and collective identity

Wim Wenders, “Der Amerikanische Freund / The American Friend” (1977)

Based on the novel “Ripley’s Game” by Patricia Highsmith, “The American Friend” is at once a psychological thriller imbued with European art-house sensibilities, a character study of two men in a strange and uneasy friendship and a homage to American film noir. Art restorer Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) is introduced to con man Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) at an auction; Jonathan already knows of Ripley’s reputation as a dealer in forged art and snubs him by refusing to shake his hand. Miffed at such treatment, Ripley avenges himself by using news about Jonathan’s incurable blood disease to draw the unsuspecting victim into a scheme concocted together with French gangster Minot (Gérard Blain) in which Jonathan has to kill another gangster for money. Jonathan is repelled by the idea but he needs the money to pass on to his wife Marianne (Lisa Kreuzer) and their two sons in the event of his death. He is persuaded by Ripley and Minot to visit a medical specialist in Paris for a second opinion and the results (intercepted and falsified by Ripley) convince Jonathan that he really is dying and must ensure his family is financially secure. In this way Jonathan falls deeper under Ripley’s control and the two men form a close if bizarre friendship.

Meanwhile Marianne is suspicious about Jonathan’s absences and believes he is in over his head in a dangerous project with Ripley. She discovers through her own investigations that the Paris medical test results have been faked. Will she be able though to reach her husband in time to persuade him not to go any further in a life of crime and to get him out of Ripley’s clutches for his sake and that of their family?

As character studies go, the film does a good job following a man whose life spins out of control and whose decisions and actions endanger him and his family, all as a result of not shaking someone’s hand. Duped into thinking his disease is killing him, desperate to provide well for his family, Jonathan ends up spiralling into committing one crime after another. His new life brings its own strains: his physical health starts to suffer under a guilty conscience and he becomes estranged from his wife due to all the lies he tells her. Ripley is not treated simply as a catalyst for Jonathan’s downfall; as Jonathan goes farther on his road to hell, he and Ripley become close friends and collaborators. Through Jonathan, Ripley gains entry into German society that he would never have been able to achieve on his own. However the film’s events end up thwarting Ripley’s further penetration into polite pan-European circles and the American is left stranded and alone once more.

Both Ganz as the rather pathetic Jonathan, driven to distraction between competing needs, and Hopper in his particular lanky cowboy Yankee way play their characters well; Hopper’s laidback and easy-going style belies a ruthless and thuggish aspect in Ripley’s personality. The support cast more or less play stereotypes of their roles – Kreuzer is effective as a German hausfrau but goes no further to stamping her own individuality on her role.

The film features some beautiful cinematography in keeping with its art-house aesthetics but at the same time follows the demands of psychological thriller quite faithfully, if with unexpected results. It can be slow for a thriller and most of the action is bunched up in the film’s second half. The music is an important actor in the film in setting a mood and priming it audiences to anticipate an unexpected and violent move on Jonathan’s part. Just what is it really in Jonathan’s nature that drives him to distrust his family doctor, reject his wife and follow a man who initially struck him as insincere and possibly dangerous? Being terminally ill and needing better life insurance cannot wholly explain Jonathan’s motivations. Could Jonathan have secretly envied Ripley’s apparent freedom in defining himself and being his own man? Through Jonathan, viewers are challenged as to the nature of one’s identity, how a person’s public identity can be at variance with his or her real character and desires, and how one’s circumstances and history can conspire to throw him/her into a trajectory that changes the public identity but might fulfill secret desires. Jonathan’s ultimate fate though should give us pause as to how far we might be able to go in breaking out of our public personas and achieving an illusory freedom. Ripley himself appears to escape the consequences of what he has done to the Zimmermanns and to others, but he cannot escape his own internal prison.

Aside from its existential questioning, the film could also be read as an inquiry into the nature of how Germany is becoming more Americanised and the intent behind American makeover of German society, thinking and behaviour. Is there an agenda behind the gradual change in German culture towards thinking and acting like Americans? Will the outcome benefit Germans or, as the film suggests, will it result in suffering and death for those seduced by American culture?

A cheap production and crude narrative make “Batman: the Killing Joke” very unfunny

Sam Lim and Bruce Timm, “Batman: the Killing Joke” (2016)

That “Batman: the Killing Joke” has lasted nearly 30 years as a milestone in the history of Batman’s adventures – because it contains the story of the Joker’s origins – is not necessarily a good reason to make a film of it. Neither is the fact that Alan Moore, writer of such classic comics / graphic novels as “The Watchmen”, wrote the comic a good reason either. Still, DC Comics thought these and other reasons were enough to finance an animated film version of the story, and the result is a tremendous disappointment.

The original story was very short and frankly very flimsy and shaky in its plot and logic, so in its filmed version it is combined with another story about Batgirl pursuing a psychopathic criminal called Paris Franz. Yes, it’s that kind of story with not very witty shots at humour. The combination though turns the whole film into Batgirl’s story which was probably not the original intention and calls into question Batman’s motives for pursuing the Joker in the main plot with a suggestion they are not quite as noble as in the original graphic novel. An unwelcome and unpalatable sex scene is introduced which sours Batman and Batgirl’s working relationship. None of the characters undergoes much in the way character development; even the Joker’s own origin story, intended to make of him a character one can sympathise with, fails to elucidate the darker and more manic aspects of his nature.

The plot follows Batgirl attempting to round up Paris Franz and his henchmen who are supposedly working for Franz’s gangland boss uncle. The reality is that Franz himself is planning to usurp his uncle as the local Gotham City capo di capi. Batman warns Batgirl that she is dealing with a psychologically disturbed criminal and tells her he will deal with Franz himself. Naturally this riles Batgirl and she is determined to get Franz once and for all. In her day job as Barbara Gordon, working at Gotham City Library, Batgirl is pestered by a co-worker curious to know who her current boyfriend is; she tells him cryptically that he is her yoga teacher.

Batgirl does end up capturing Franz (and at the same time rescues Batman) in a tortuous way that has her questioning her motivation to continue as Batgirl. She hangs up her cape permanently but has only a brief time to enjoy her new life outside work before an even more deranged and dangerous criminal – the Joker himself – cripples her and abducts her father, Gotham City Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. The Joker subjects Gordon to physical and psychological abuse in his theme-park den. In the meantime, Barbara Gordon is hospitalised and her doctors tell Batman she will never walk again. Batman then hunts down the Joker who then tries to force Batman into the mental maelstrom he put Jim Gordon through earlier.

Through the main story of the film, there is interspersed in fragments the Joker’s own origin story, as remembered by the Joker himself. The Joker does forewarn the audience throughout the film that his memory is unreliable and that he prefers to think of his past as multiple choices: this means that the story as presented (and frankly it’s not all that interesting or plausible) need not be taken as gospel.

Batman is never more than a mostly one-dimensional shadow figure representing order, stability and control in a corrupt society on the edge of social breakdown and chaos; in a world such as this, he can never allow himself self-doubt and relaxing his strict personal moral code is out of the question. Compassion for the Joker’s plight would surely invite comparison between himself and the Joker, and Batman would see in that compassion a potential weakness in himself that the Joker would exploit for all it was worth. This limits Batman as a character and the focus of the film must therefore fall on other characters and the action of the plot. The Joker revels in chaos and madness as expressions of his hate and revenge against an unjust and uncaring world that has robbed him of love and respect, and denied him his identity, physical health and body. He correctly sees that Batman has suffered severe personal trauma and tries to draw him into his world as a fellow sufferer. Batman’s own restrictions would trap him in the Joker’s world and here is where Commissioner Gordon offers a way out as a representative of justice, the rule of law, the establishment of moderation and proper boundaries between the two extremes represented by Batman and the Joker, and the possibility of healing and setting right a dysfunctional world. The action that binds the three men though is not substantial and all it really highlights is that Gordon is made of different moral substance than the Joker, and the audience must look to something beyond the bounds of the film that can explain the Joker’s unstable tendencies and criminal actions.

Although Barbara Gordon / Batgirl is a minor character in the main story, the inclusion of the Paris Franz teaser story turns her into a tragic figure robbed of a normal life and a future; unfortunately viewers do not see her recovery, rehabilitation and resurrection, and only see her contemplating her new role as Oracle, the leader of the all-female Birds of Prey crime-fighting team. One would have liked to see how Barbara was able to recover from the crippling and abuse inflicted on her by the Joker and his minions, and what this would have implied about her strength of character.

The animation is crude and typical of “Batman: the Animated Series” starring Kevin Conroy as Batman’s voice and Mark Hamill for the Joker. (Indeed the two actors voice their respective characters here.) The cheap style of animation is not adequate enough to portray the characters and their psychological complexity. What is unfortunately implied by the cheap production and the crudely constructed narrative of the movie is that DC Comics has unthinkingly tried to cash in on one of its more profitable franchises to milk it for more profit without thought or care for the Batman universe or its fans.

Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of Safra, Magnitsky and Berezovsky in “Through Sherlock’s Eyes: The Letter M”

“Through Sherlock’s Eyes: The Letter M” (EZ Productions, 2014)

Presented by Russian actor Vasily Livanov, known in the West for playing Sherlock Holmes in a highly regarded 1980s Soviet TV series “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson”, this documentary is a keen and critical study into the mysterious deaths of Edmond Safra and Sergei Magnitsky, both associated with the British-American investment fund manager William Browder. The documentary cleverly uses a narrative structure, based on the famous English detective Sherlock Holmes investigating yet another strange crime, to explore the circumstances of Safra and Magnitsky’s deaths, compare Magnitsky’s prison experience and death with similar experiences and deaths in the US prison system, and make a case for Browder being linked to the CIA and MI5.

Livanov’s Sherlock Holmes plunges into the mystery straight away by introducing both Browder and his Hermitage Capital Management partner Edmond Safra and mentioning Safra’s puzzling death in a fire in 2007 in almost the same breath. Mention of Sergei Magnitsky’s death in prison and of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky’s death by hanging in his British country home in 2013 comes hot on the heels of Safra’s demise. Interestingly the film detours through an interview with human rights activist lawyer Paul Wright into a detailed comparison of the medical treatment Magnitsky received in prison and the way in which the US prison system treats many sick prisoners, and pointedly picks out the hypocrisy in the way the US government and Browder have complained long and loudly about how dreadfully Magnitsky was treated by prison doctors (which he was, there is no doubt he was treated appallingly) but are silent on the equally shocking conditions in which US prisoners are often forced to live and how such conditions affect their health and contribute to their early deaths.

The circumstances surrounding the deaths of Safra in 1998, Magnitsky in 2011 and Berezovsky in 2013 seem to have quite a bit in common: before both Safra and Berezovsky died, they had been preparing to take steps to reveal some valuable information – in Berezovsky’s case, to reveal valuable information to the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin. The documentary relies heavily on interviews with freelance journalist Oleg Lurie and Berezovsky’s former head of security services Sergei Sokolov to explain the possible links with the two businessmen’s deaths and HCM and Browder.

A French counter-terrorism officer Paul Barill is roped into the documentary to recount the career of Bill Browder from the time he renounced US citizenship and took up British citizenship, and went on to found HCM and through that investment fund raided the wealth of privatised Russian state corporations and stole other Russian monies. Barill claims that the wealth Browder acquired was used to discredit Russia in various ways, including the destabilisation of Ukraine and the brainwashing of Ukrainians to hate and fear Russia and President Putin.

Technically the documentary is well made and beautifully presented though for Western viewers not familiar with the tax fraud case surrounding Bill Browder and HCM, the treatment of Safra and Magnitsky’s deaths together with Boris Berezovsky’s demise might be confusing and leave viewers knowing no more about Magnitsky, Safra and Berezovsky than they did before seeing the documentary. There is enough known about Magnitsky’s career and association with Browder and his own employer Firestone Duncan in the public domain that a shorter documentary about Magnitsky alone could have substituted instead. In particular, the public needs to know that Magnitsky was an accountant who invented a tax evasion scheme for his employer’s client as the mainstream Western media inaccurately portrays the man as a tax lawyer. Some simple animation demonstrating in chronological order what Magnitsky did for Firestone Duncan and Browder would have supplemented the information from the interviews in a way viewers can understand.

The film narrows its focus down to the character of Browder himself and by then many viewers who have followed the sometimes confusing narrative will have concluded that Browder may well be working for the CIA or British intelligence services with the ultimate goal of destabilising and overthrowing the Russian government, and replacing it with one more subservient to the US government which aims to control the country’s energy resources and profit from them.

This documentary could have been a lot more informative and even quite fun. Instead it is quite dry and doesn’t even try to engage with its viewers with techniques such as addressing and challenging viewers to try to solve the mystery of whodunnit to Magnitsky before Holmes does. For all its faults though, this documentary seems to be the only British documentary to show the Russian point of view on the largest tax fraud in Russian history and its reverberations for Russia and its relations with the West.

Predestination: musing on identity, purpose and whether our fates are predetermined

Michael and Peter Spierig, “Predestination” (2014)

Based on a short story by Robert Heinlein (“All You Zomvies” which features no zombies, disappointingly enough), “Predestination” is an intriguing if not always satisfying film about time travel, the nature of one’s identity and the possibility that linear time and space may depend very heavily on spatio-temporal Mobius loops. Ethan Hawke plays an agent employed by a secret agency within the US government: his role is to hunt down a serial terrorist called the Fizzle Bomber through time and space. If the viewer can suspend disbelief long enough and far enough, the agent’s time machine is a violin case with time and space co-ordinates that can be manually set; all a person needs to do is to stand within a radius of one metre of the machine and … ZIP! … ta-daah, you’ve arrived at your destination.

After an encounter with the Fizzle Bomber in New York in 1975 that results in horrific facial injuries, the agent undergoes surgical facial reconstruction and acquires a new face. His boss Robertson (Noah Taylor) sends him back to New York in 1970 where, disguised as a bartender, he meets a young man, John (Sarah Snook), who proceeds to tell him his life-story. The biography is fairly generic: an orphaned baby is taken in by an orphanage and grows up there, never being accepted by any family or receiving any love due to its peculiarities. The child becomes an adult and undergoes various trials which make John the man he is. The agent offers to take John back to a point in his past to confront the mysterious stranger who has ruined his life and made him the outcast and outsider that he is. After John is set upon his path, the agent resumes his search for the Fizzle Bomber and from that moment, his own search for the elusive terrorist becomes increasingly bizarre and the viewer is left to guess at the agent’s connection with John and the Fizzle Bomber and to solve the existential puzzle that his actions create.

The puzzle is not too difficult to solve and it does throw up an interesting conundrum about identity and how choices we make in life may or may not be inevitable. Identity is less stable than it appears: the film reveals that John was originally born female and was christened Jane. Jane grows up as a girl, albeit a highly intelligent and unusually strong one, and is trained to be a comfort worker dedicated to providing rest and recreation for astronauts on space stations. After being seduced by a mystery stranger, she becomes pregnant, gives birth to a baby girl and undergoes gender reassignment surgery when the doctors who deliver her child discover her intersex condition. Meanwhile the baby is kidnapped from hospital. Jane renames her / himself John and tries to adjust to his new identity and need to find a new niche in society. He becomes a writer churning out pulpy true-confession stories to women’s magazines until he meets the agent.

The bizarre plot unfolds gradually and plausibly – but only just – thanks to the performances given by Hawke and Snook and the care with which the Spierig twins recreate the ambience and ephemera of  the historical periods in which the action takes place. Through Snook’s performance as Jane / John, the film explores an individual’s need for connection to others and love and acceptance by society for what s/he is and brings to humankind as an individual and not as a representative of his / her gender. True identity and purpose come only when an individual is accepted as s/he is and the natural abilities s/he brings are also accepted, cultivated and directed towards mutually beneficial ends instead of destructive ones.  Hawke’s role as the agent forces consideration of one’s role in influencing people to take the paths they do and the consequences that arise: as the film progresses, the agent becomes a more sinister and less beneficent protagonist and by the end of the film, the agent is well on the way to becoming a dark figure while John is groomed and recruited by Robertson as a new agent and receives his mission: to track down the Fizzle Bomber; the time and place are New York in 1975.

From a philosophical viewpoint the film addresses the issue of determinism, whether we are or are not the playthings of fate. The conclusion arrived at turns out to be rather more complicated: we may not be puppets but the decisions we make, however consciously, end up imprisoning ourselves and put us on courses that shut off certain opportunities and open up others which in turn push us further into some directions but not others. Whether these directions we go into are morally right or wrong is another thing. For a film with this message though, the subtext suggests the opposite: the agent continually pops up at various points of Jane / John’s life to nudge the character onto certain paths and away from others, as if to justify a certain purpose or fulfill a goal  … which turns out to be his own life’s purpose and goal. Were Jane / John to do anything out of the ordinary, the agent and his employer may well cease to exist.

The film’s conclusion ends up rather … deterministic as Hawke’s agent descends into a life in the shadows, knowing that there is someone coming after him who will eventually kill him. Meanwhile Robertson and the agency he heads continue on their way, profiting from the misery they have helped to create by shaping and reshaping history into a giant Mobius strip. Perhaps life is more deterministic than we think it is … because our thinking and actions have made it so, and we are so immersed in it that, like the agent, John and Robertson, we fail to step outside our mental paradigms and realise we are trapped in a loop of our making which ends up having a life and force of its own that continues to lock us into the same old actions. The odd thing though is that the Fizzle Bomber, conscious of the circularity of his life, never tries to go after Robertson and the secret US government agency. It is only when he dies that he is finally free of the cosmic hamster wheel he has ridden all his life. Meanwhile Robertson and the agency he heads continue on their way, et cetera.

 

The American Soldier: focusing on alienation and longing for connection

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Der Amerikanische Soldat / The American Soldier” (1970)

A loosely stitched pastiche of elements borrowed from old Hollywood and French New Wave film noir flicks, “The American Soldier” has plenty to say about the relationship between the US and Germany (or West Germany at the time the film was made, during the height of the Vietnam War) and the hypocrisies of contemporary Western society and certain of its features that divide humans from one another and prevent them from being authentic and fully human. A professional killer, Ricky Murphy (Karl Scheyde) has just returned to Germany and is leading a desultory sort of life. Three corrupt cops, pressured by their bureaucrat police commissioner to do some real work and stamp down on their end of the national crime statistics, hire him to wipe out some crooks. Murphy does his job a little too efficiently and becomes a danger to the police in upstaging their crime-busting efforts. While the rogue cops figure out how to set him up, Murphy becomes a little too intimate with the prostitute girlfriend of one of the cops and they both plan to escape Germany and go to Japan.

There’s so much packed into the film’s 80 minutes, it could afford to lose those Humphrey Bogart / Ingrid Bergman “Casablanca” references: the nattily suited Ricky Murphy visits his old flame Inga at the Lola Montez club (familiar from Fassbinder’s “Gods of the Plague” gangster flick) and discovers she’s married to another man. Like Ricky in the 1940s thriller classic, Ricky Murphy is a lesser man not living up to his full potential as a human being but whereas Bogart’s character did redeem himself, Murphy resolutely remains a killing machine who (spoiler alert), living by the sword, eventually dies by it – or a gun, rather. The woman he plans to run away with comes to an unhappy end as well. In fact nearly all characters in this film, minor as well as major, are unhappy and disconnected from one another and from themselves, and are destined either to come to a sticky end or continue living hollow lives. Probably the only character who comes closest to being authentic turns out to be a hotel maid stood up by her boyfriend who kills herself in despair.

The acting is not very good and Fassbinder himself surfaces as Franz Walsch, Ricky’s partner in crime. Actors appear to be cold and robotic and this stilted manner of acting calls viewers’ attention to the alienation several characters feel and which some are driven to overcome. A number of elements and characters from Fassbinder’s earlier gangster films appear here: one of the police officers who romances the prostitute who takes a shine to Ricky is the same cop who encouraged Joanna in “Gods of the Plague” to rat on her ex-lover. On the other hand the cinematography is well done with good use of panning to capture the gritty atmosphere  and seedy underground of Munich. The plot is very basic and is secondary to character portrayal and the loneliness and isolation felt by several of them. As in “Love is Colder than Death” and “Gods of the Plague”, characters display an obsession with money as a means to the freedom and the promise of new relationships and connections they strive for but probably never know. Society is revealed as corrupt: the three detectives use Ricky in an effort to bolster their careers for a bureaucrat who is under pressure himself from his unseen superiors. Ricky does not yet realise that he is as disposable as the people he kills. Everyone is demeaned in some way by the deals they do in pursuit of money and relationships and no-one is any happier at the end of the film than at the beginning.

The relationship between Ricky and the police officers reflects to some degree West Germany’s relationship to the United States since 1945 as Fassbinder saw it in 1970: the country had experienced considerable economic recovery and had become Europe’s largest economy and one of its richest, largely on the back of the US military which meant West Germany could divert money that might otherwise have been spent on defence into investing in social services and infrastructure, and improving people’s standard of living.

Unexpected humour is to be found in the film’s one sex scene where Ricky and the prostitute try to make out in bed while the hotel maid sits on the edge and recounts a story about a woman called Emmy who falls madly in love with a Turkish man called Ali and marries him; and in the film’s closing scene in which Ricky’s younger brother wrestles with the killer’s body in a way that suggests a wild homosexual encounter. All the films in Fassbinder’s gangster trilogy contain references to repressed homosexuality between men which say something about the nature of an otherwise permissive society that prides itself on being free and uninhibited in which his films are set.

For the most part the film has a less experimental style though its plot, concerns and stilted style of filming still mark it out as an art-house film. After “The American Soldier”, Fassbinder turned his attention to making melodramas and made-for-TV films and series.

Gods of the Plague: a character study on social hypocrisy, loneliness and the destruction of dreams

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Götter der Pest / Gods of the Plague” (1970)

Following on from “Love is Colder than Death” in R W Fassbinder’s trilogy of gangster films, “Gods of the Plague” follows the adventures of one Franz Walsch (Harry Baer instead of Fassbinder himself) after his release from prison.  He attempts to turn over a new leaf with his singer girlfriend Joanna (Hanna Schygulla) but mainstream society is hostile to him and gradually he falls back into his old mode of life. He drifts away from Joanna and takes up with two other women, one of whom is the girlfriend of his brother  who had been killed some time ago by a gangster Günther (Günther Kaufmann), also known as The Gorilla. Walsch meets The Gorilla and the two strike up a friendship and plan to rob a supermarket to get money and supplies for a trip to Greece with a lady friend. Joanna, feeling sore at being abandoned, finds friendship and romance with a police officer charged with tracking Walsch down. The police officer persuades Joanna to turn informant on Walsch and she in turn relies on a woman who sells pornographic magazines to supply her with information on Walsch’s movements. Eventually Carla tips off Joanna about the planned supermarket heist and Joanna passes the news onto the police officer who resolves to foil Walsch and The Gorilla’s plans …

The most salient feature of the film is its listless and lackadaisical style due in no small part to Baer’s portrayal of Walsch as uninterested in conforming to social expectations and having his own self-centred outlook on life. Society spurns him so he sees no reason to buckle down and accept his allocated space at the bottom of the social ladder; he lives to enjoy himself and whatever time he has on the planet. Through Baer and his interactions with others, and the general indifference shown him by the general public coupled with the police department’s interest in spying on him, the film expresses scorn for the hypocrisy and double-dealing nature of Western society that result in people being chewed up. Baer’s attitude to The Gorilla, initially hating him for killing his brother but later changing to affection and an acceptance that the brother’s death is just part of the business of gangsterdom, seems to have a homosexual frisson and this may be reflective of Fassbinder’s own bisexuality which led to his having an affair with Kaufmann.

Use of black-and-white film-stock together with a formal, minimalist look and experimentation with lighting endows the movie with a strong dark film noir flavour. Creative use of panning with the film camera gives the film a highly artistic and stark look and reiterates the film’s themes of boredom, alienation from the mainstream, loneliness, a sympathy and fascination with the underworld, and how relationships between and among characters can lead to their downfall and loss. Dreams of freedom and escape from a humdrum way of life are dashed forever. Money is an ever-present concern with several characters who resort to seedy or degrading occupations to make ends meet. Character development is privileged over story-telling and viewers see how Walsch develops as an essentially passive character who allows the river of life to take him where it will. The beautiful Schygulla is a welcome treat to watch – even if by now she has become stereotyped in playing duplicitous blonde floozies – and Fassbinder himself has a very small part as a customer interested in buying a pornographic magazine from Carla. Although the acting is not of the highest standard – everyone looks and acts doped out much of the time – it’s sufficient to portray character, motivation and hints of a personal nihilistic outlook on life.

As in “Love is Colder than Death”, there’s considerable wry humour and the music soundtrack is very important though if I have to hear the ditty about the passengers on Noah’s Ark that played during Walsch and The Gorilla’s sojourn in their new (shared) girlfriend’s apartment again, my brain will burst and splatter from the sheer cheesy kitschiness oozing out of its rhyming couplets. A three-way fight scene at a farm-house in which all combatants knock one another out cold is very comical.

Perhaps this isn’t one of Fassbinder’s better efforts but this is quite a dark film about desperate people living on the fringes of society who cope with life as best they can in the only ways they know how … because society callously treats them as little cogs in a machine, only of value when they serve but to be disposed of when they show signs of independence or of wanting more from life than work and money.

 

Love is Colder than Death: a study of nihilism and individuals’ relationships in a mercenary society

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Liebe ist kälter als der Tod / Love is Colder than Death” (1969)

Gangster films might be an unusual choice for film-makers to explore questions of the nature of an individual’s relationship to society, the place of freedom and free will, and how people are thwarted by others and by their own desires and weaknesses from achieving what they need, yet a surprising number of such films has been made. R W Fassbinder’s debut full-length explores issues of freedom, desire, the place of outsiders in modern bourgeois society and the conflicts that arise when these intersect. A crime syndicate attempts to recruit a small-time pimp, Franz Walsch (Fassbinder himself), into its ranks but he refuses and prefers to go his own way. The syndicate sends stylishly dressed mobster Bruno (Ulli Trommel) after Franz and Bruno decides to throw in his lot with Franz and his prostitute girlfriend Johanna (Hanna Schygulla). The three live together in Franz and Johanna’s apartment and carry out various robberies and murders.  The bonds among the three prove to be their breaking point: Johanna, jealous of Franz and Bruno’s growing closeness, informs the police of the men’s plan to rob a bank and her action leads to tragedy for Franz, Bruno and herself.

The plot and the look of the film are very minimal. Even the acting and the dialogue seem stripped right down. The entire world in which Franz, Bruno and Johanna live looks very artificial and formal: nothing, it appears, happens by accident and every action seems rather studied. The low budget allocated to the film is rather obvious:  the gangsters’ weapons look like painted plastic models, indoor sets are very spartan and black-and-white film stock is used. Settings are stark and highly expressionistic. The main characters are stylishly dressed, Bruno’s sartorial style in particular based upon that of gangster Jef in Jean-Pierre Melville’s film “Le Samouraï” which had been released a year previously before Fassbinder’s debut.  The deliberate decision to pare down the plot details to fragmentary and the dialogue to only the most essential to drive the plot on has the effect of highlighting the characters’ loneliness and the emptiness they feel in their lives to the extent that they care very little for mainstream society – and ultimately one another. They reject even the overtures of the criminal syndicate to form a business relationship with them. Long silences emphasise the underlying conflicts within the unusual love triangle. The film’s apparent amateurish quality as demonstrated by the way it is edited, the props used and the overall minimal style throw weight onto what is (or may be) unsaid, the characters’ feelings about one another and the pressures of modern life and social isolation bearing down on them.

Fassbinder pays homage to a great many influences: the French New Wave cinema of the 1960s is one influence as are also Hollywood gangster and film noir films, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and German Expressionism. Avant-garde film techniques are used: in one scene the camera slowly pans to the left, then back to the right, then left again, right again, back and forth as a minor character paces a room. Static shots are often emphasised and a two-dimensional painterly effect is often achieved. At times it seems that Fassbinder is in love with Bruno, or his clothes and fedora hat at any rate, as the camera sometimes freezes on Bruno and makes him appear as a sculpture and work of art. The music soundtrack is very distinct and out of the ordinary: wobbly vibrating violins in some parts of the film may draw viewers’ attention away from the slow action, and in a couple of scenes demented harpsichord-like music enhance the fantastical ambience and cynical mood of the film.

Characters express a nihilistic view of the universe in their ruthless behaviour towards one another and others, with devastating results for everyone. In the end, the main characters’ attempts to get what they want or need come to nothing and audiences are uncertain as to what will happen between Franz and Johanna after Bruno departs from their lives.

The film can be quite confusing to watch as the plot is so threadbare that viewers must work to pull all its pieces together. The important elements are the characters, their relationships, their attitudes to themselves and life generally. Through this film, Fassbinder expresses contempt for a society in which such characters with a cold, calculating approach to life can exist and thrive.

The Thin Blue Line: a subjective film on subjectivity and a film on injustice that led to justice

Errol Morris, “The Thin Blue Line” (1988)

Originally intended to be a documentary about another person who appears briefly in the film, “The Thin Blue Line” is an investigation into how an innocent man was convicted of the murder of a police officer and sentenced to death despite almost overwhelming evidence pointing to another person by a criminal justice system operated by incompetence and stupidity. In 1976 a drifter, Randall Adams, rolls into Dallas with his brother and a couple of days later meets a 16-year-old boy, David Harris, who offers him a lift in his car. (Adams does not know that Harris stole the car.) The unlikely pair smoke some grass, watch a drive-in movie and drive off. A police patrol car pursues the two as the car’s headlights are off. Both cars stop and one of the police officers, Robert Woods, approaches Harris and Adams. Stopping by the driver’s side of the car, Woods is immediately shot several times and falls to the ground, dying. Harris and Adams immediately race off while Woods’ partner fires at them.

The film examines the police investigation of Woods’ murder and Adams’ arrest and trial, based largely on interviews with Adams, Harris, Adams’ defence lawyers, various Dallas police officers and witnesses. The narrative is driven entirely by recollections and testimonies of the interviewees who reveal their biases and prejudices against Adams or shoot holes in the evidence that was presented in the original murder trial. Re-enactments of the murder scene, repeated over and over in a fragmented way, underline what the interviewees say until viewers can almost believe they themselves are watching Woods’ actual murder. Newspaper clippings interspersed between interviews help to delineate aspects of the murder, Adams’ arrest and charge of murder and his subsequent trial and further treatment by the Dallas justice system.

The film does not condemn its interviewees but forces viewers to make their own judgements about them. The detectives are hungry to wrap up and close a murder case that’s dragged on for too long for lack of credible evidence – because the murder took place late at night and Woods’ partner could not remember the details of the stolen car accurately – before the Christmas season. The police determine very quickly who they believe to be responsible for killing one of their own and shape the evidence to fit their beliefs and narrative to the extent that the real murderer escapes and goes on a crime spree for several years. The judge wants to retire with his reputation for sending the right people to jail 100% intact. Two witnesses perjure themselves in court because their daughter is going on trial a week after Adams’ trial and they need money. The prosecuting psychiatrist Dr Grigson is keen to maintain his reputation for helping to send riff-raff to the electric chair. Self-interest on the part of most people who were involved, even in minor ways – the stenographer who takes down Adams’ testimony changes it when typing up his statement (suggesting that s/he is either eager or compelled to conform to the detectives’ say-so) – piles up incrementally until the sum of it takes on a life of its own and an innocent man falls into the maw of an indifferent bureaucracy from which he may never escape.

The film questions the role and accuracy of memory and the importance attributed to eyewitness accounts by the US and Texas legal systems of the time. In 1976, the techniques and methods of criminal investigation were still quite crude and liable to error by current (2014) standards. Police and courts depended much more on eyewitness accounts and in this dependence, Morris shows how the culture of Texas, its prejudices towards outsiders like Adams, the casual racism and the mediocrity such a culture encouraged and bred in people become a running commentary underlying Adams’ case. The thin blue line that the police supposedly represent between order in society and anarchy becomes a thin line between truth and justice on the one hand and lies and corruption on the other. Ironically in questioning such aspects of the Robert Woods murder case, the film itself becomes subjective and subjectivity becomes one of its dominant themes.

Although quite dry and perhaps lacking in energy, the film feels tight and focused. Its style is noirish and the re-enactment scenes might have come straight out of a David Lynch film. The interviewees are not portrayed in flattering ways yet neither do they come across as idiots. One can see how a culture of conformity and prejudice can bear down on individuals and influence their beliefs and behaviours. Though David Harris turns out to be a loathsome psychopath without remorse, an event from his childhood and his description of the relationships within his family illuminate the inner trauma and torment that led him into a life of violence and his eventual execution in 2004 for another murder. We can only wonder at the kind of person he might have turned out to be had his family not suffered the tragedy of his brother’s drowning at the age of four or if they had all received the appropriate counselling after the child’s death.

“The Thin Blue Line” was to have an impact on the way crime documentaries are made and also on the case of Randall Adams himself: the film led to the overturning of his conviction and his release from jail. Adams wrote a book about the trial and became a protester against the death penalty. Dr Grigson was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association for unethical conduct of the type that Adams describes in the film when he discusses the way in which Grigson interviewed and tested him, and then testified in court over the likelihood of future criminal behaviour. Since the film was originally meant to be about Grigson, I’ll end this review with him.