A celebration of a major art and social utopian movement in “Bauhaus Spirit: 100 Years of Bauhaus”

Niels Bolbringer and Thomas Tielsch, “Bauhaus Spirit: 100 Years of Bauhaus” (2018)

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the artistic / aesthetic movement by Walter Gropius in Weimar-era Germany, this documentary explores both the history and the impact of the movement on art, music and dance, interior design, architecture and urban planning over the decades. The Bauhaus movement was born in a school with the aim of creating a new type of society, one that stressed the full development of the human individual’s physical, mental and artistic capacities in a socially conscious collective environment. Through such development, the ills of early 20th-century Western society that had led to global war, poverty and inequality could be eliminated and a new, better society could result. Artists and intellectuals from across Europe came to study or to teach at the school. The school barely survived the Great Depression and the collapse of Weimar Germany before being shut down by the Nazi Germany, its teachers and students forced to flee overseas.

The early history of the Bauhaus school and movement zips by somewhat confusingly, flitting from dance to painting and to the Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s works and vision – Le Corbusier was not really part of the Bauhaus movement so why the film devotes so much attention to him is puzzling – and viewers can easily get lost in the slew of images and information that whiz by. It’s only once the film starts exploring the Bauhaus impact on architecture, furniture and interior design, and urban planning in Germany and the poor neighbourhoods, known as barrios, of Medellin in Colombia that it becomes focused and its aim of revitalising Bauhaus as an inclusive social utopian movement becomes apparent.

The best part of the documentary is when it shifts to those barrios and the architects bringing Bauhaus principles to the people there analyse the needs of the people living in the slums and adapt the Bauhaus vision to fulfilling those needs. In bringing a communal gym to one slum neighbourhood – which also does multiple duty as a meeting place, child care centre and more besides – the architects encourage a sense of community among the slum dwellers who in turn come to identify more and more with their neighbourhoods and are prepared to support and defend them. The architects look at the issue of transport within overcrowded barrios climbing up the sides of hills and mountains, and come up with the brainwave of building escalators and a cable car system that take commuters up and down hills with minimal disruption to communities and an efficient use of the available land. The added bonus of the cable car system is that it is fun to ride and affords riders incredible views of Medellin and the surrounding mountains.

The Bauhaus approach is contrasted with other rational approaches to urban planning in Paris (here is where Le Corbusier has been influential) which have resulted in a very divided city where the more pleasant (and tourist-oriented) areas are in the middle, industry is banished to one side and housing estates into which immigrants from all corners of the globe have been tossed together with no thought as to how they’ll all get along spread endlessly outside the city with inadequate and inefficient public transport links to the industrial areas where they have to work. Many of the social problems that bedevil France – the annual youth riots in summer, the isolation and alienation of migrant youngsters that encourage their radicalisation by terror organisations – surely have their origins in this form of urban planning. The Bauhaus vision on the other hand is to work with the people and their needs, and the limitations of the physical and social environment in which the people live, and create and develop solutions particular to that context; as a result, no two communities where Bauhaus principles have informed their planning will be the same.

Unfortunately the film says nothing about how and why the Bauhaus movement declined in influence in the later half of the 20th century; surely that decline coincided with significant political, economic and social trends during that period. The movement’s utopian ideals would surely have clashed with the aims of neoliberal capitalism across most parts of the world. The film’s failure to locate the Bauhaus movement, its aims and aesthetic ideals within the political, social and economic ideologies prevailing across the world most certainly accounts for why the documentary seems vague on the Bauhaus movement’s later history.

Botswana’s Heavy Metal Queens: focusing on the fashions and image rather than the music and the subculture

Sarah Vianney, “Botswana’s Heavy Metal Queens” (2018)

Despite the title, the heavy metal queens of Botswana  featured in this Deutsche Welle documentary aren’t musicians and there’s not much actual heavy metal music either, not even in the sparse music soundtrack. “Botswana’s Heavy Metal Queens” is more an account revolving around individual persons than a sociological survey of a particular aspect of a subculture that has taken root in a southern African country. The film focuses on the lives of three young women – Gloria, Ludo and Flora – going about their daily activities and how their obsession with metal gives meaning, identity and structure to their lives. Gloria is a single mother who organises regular garbage pick-ups in her community in Maun (a rural town in northern Botswana) with other female metal fans like herself,  all in their cowboy-leather glory. Ludo does carpentry at home making babies’ cradles. Flora is a secretary at a construction company.

The film’s narrative revolves around the three women’s efforts to get together and travel by car with a bunch of male fans to a metal festival in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, where the country’s leading metal band Skinflint is headlining. The women make their own leather clothes and take care to get the appropriate accessories. Ludo and her male pals arrive in Flora’s village, strutting down the street, engaging in hilarious greeting rituals and head-banging to their favourite bands. Taking Flora with them, the fans detour to celebrate a fellow fan’s wedding where they are the cynosure of all eyes. After paying their respects, the fans continue on to Gaborone and arrive just in time to catch Skinflint’s performance at the bar where the festival is being held. The documentary ends with Gloria, Ludo, Flora and their friends moshing together right in front of the band.

The documentary takes in vast expanses of the dry semi-arid country where the women live and work. The conditions of the villages where they live are poor but not squalid; everyone looks happy and healthy, and children can be seen playing in the streets or gazing curiously at the strange adults in their black leather get-ups. While the film is very well done and even beautiful in parts, viewers don’t learn much about how metal came to have a foothold in the most rural parts of Botswana, nor why metalheads here have adopted a cowboy-leather aesthetic. The film makes much about how metal represents a release for Gloria, Ludo and Flora from the more mundane aspects of their lives and the social and cultural pressures they endure as women. For these women, metal helps them express their individuality and desire not to have to conform to social expectations. The music provides them with a social network of their own choosing and this social network in turn allows them to experience life beyond their own communities in a safe way. At the same time, metal runs the gauntlet among conservative Christian churches in their communities who accuse metalheads of being devil worshippers and Satanists; Gloria counters the accusations by performing good deeds in public in full metal gear. However the views of older people in her community and Ludo and Flora’s communities will be hard for the women to change.

An opportunity to learn something about society in Botswana, and how a particular subculture based around a genre of music imported from abroad helps young people learn about the West and incorporate aspects of Western culture into their own lives and cultures, was missed. A somewhat patronising attitude towards metal, with the focus on the clothing that metalheads in northern Botswana wear, is present in the film. While the women genuinely enjoy the music and the opportunity to experience a different life and social network outside their rural communities, documentary director Vianney appears not to have gauged how devoted to the metal subculture these women are and how much of the music they know, apart from their dress. The interest in the heavy metal queens – as opposed to a more general interest in the presence of metal in rural Botswana – seems quite prurient. What male metalheads think of the music and of the women’s interest in it is never asked; it is as if, when the men follow the music, it’s a case of boys just being boys, but when women follow the music, there must be something deeper going on – and sure enough, the film-makers dig up themes of identity, individuality and nonconformity and the modern stereotype of African women “empowering” themselves.

The Final Journey: a formulaic road movie about hope and reconciliation in the Ukrainian civil war

Nick Baker-Monteys, “The Final Journey / Leanders Letzte Reise” (2017)

The plot may be a familiar one – aged pensioner Eduard Leander (Jurgen Prochnow), recently widowed, resolves to return to a distant land he fought a war in over 70 years ago, to find a woman he once knew, and his estranged slacker grand-daughter Adele (Petra Schmidt-Schaller) is forced to follow him to keep an eye on him – but the historical and political context in which their odyssey takes place is a contemporary and highly controversial one, one that takes them to uncomfortable and dark places, psychologically as well as physically, that test their character, their beliefs and ultimately their relationship and feelings for and about each other.

In early 2014, after the death of his wife, whom he has never really loved, Leander suddenly decides to go on a train trip to Kiev in Ukraine. Adele’s mother Uli (Susanne von Borsody) persuades her to try to talk to him to stay home – the older woman has never got on well with her dad – but Leander resolutely stays on the train and Adele is compelled to stay with him. On the train they meet Lew (Tambet Tuisk), a Russian-Ukrainian man who helps them evade train guards because Adele does not have her passport with her. Once in Kiev, Lew takes the two under his wing as they are unable to get hotel accommodation without Adele’s passport and they stay with his family. During the midday meal, Lew’s relatives come to blows over the troubled situation in eastern Ukraine: Lew has a grandmother and a brother living in Lugansk, and the brother (to the approval of the older relatives but not Lew’s) is fighting with the Donbass side against the new (and illegal) Kiev government.

Through contact with a historian specialising in World War II history, Leander determines that the woman he wants to meet, Svetlana Agafonova, lives in Lugansk so he, Adele and Lew travel by car there. There, they come in contact with the Donbass fighters and Lew’s brother and babushka. On further enquiry, the three discover they must cross the river border under cover of night to Russia to the village where Svetlana was resettled after the war. Bit by bit, Adele learns of the history of her father’s participation in the war as the leader of a Cossack regiment fighting under Nazi command against Soviet forces and Russian partisans, and realises that he may have committed atrocities grave enough to make him a war criminal.

In the meantime, Adele tries to stay in contact with her mother and relays some of what Leander and she get up to. As the pair go farther into eastern Ukraine and Russia, and war breaks out in Lugansk province, Uli decides to travel to Kiev and then to eastern Ukraine to find the two.

Schmidt-Schaller and Tuisk give very good performances as the two young party-goers who develop a genuine friendship and romance under unusual and trying circumstances. Prochnow maintains a surly old git outlook, at least until he arrives in the Russian village and discovers a few surprises. Through their journey together, Leander and his grand-daughter discover things about one another they had not known or suspected before: somewhat to her surprise, Adele develops a real warmth and affection for old Opa as she sees that he is truly capable of love and care for others, that he would risk his health and life to reconnect with a woman he knew 70+ years ago and whose current whereabouts he has no idea of; and Leander, to his regret, realises that his true family had always cared about him and for him. The tragedy is that he is unable to last long enough to truly reconcile with the people who care for him.

The cinematography is quite good (in a minimal way) at portraying the countryside in eastern Europe and the poverty of rural areas in Ukraine and Russia.

The script gingerly tiptoes around the current politics of Ukraine and the civil war in eastern Ukraine, and attempts to treat the two sides evenly as though the civil war were just like any other civil war with one brother disagreeing with another brother and families being split over the conflict. The nationalists marching through the streets of Kiev are shorn of their Nazi regalia and Western audiences are likely to be lulled into thinking these people are no more harmful than nationalist thug gangs in other countries and have no place in the Ukrainian government. (Perhaps the Leanders and Lew should have detoured a while in Lvov in western Ukraine, to watch torchlight parades carrying swastika banners and portraits of notorious Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, and chanting anti-Jewish slogans through the city streets.) A scene in which the Leanders and Lew are being driven through the Russian countryside at night and pass by a strange convoy of tanks and army trucks going towards the Ukrainian border, at which Lew exclaims, “This is not normal!”, gives a clue as to whose propaganda the film-makers prefer to follow.

In exploring how two characters find redemption and connection through learning about their place in history (and at last finding some direction instead of drifting aimlessly through memory or pleasure), the film brings a message of hope and reconciliation with the past. Unfortunately (and ironically) its attempt to make sense of the civil war in Ukraine is shallow, because the film-makers are ignorant of the West’s involvement in overthrowing the legitimate if ineffective and corrupt Yanukovych government and that government’s replacement with a more criminal and vicious regime.

 

Faust: a visually stunning film with many magnificent scenes – but a thin story weakens it

F W Murnau, “Faust” (1926)

Visually powerful and stunning, with an incredible opening scene of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding high in the sky, “Faust” is an ambitious film that retells the story of Faust and the pact he made with the devil Mephistopheles. Special effects abound in this movie; modern audiences will be flabbergasted that, back in the 1920s, special effects were rarely used in films generally.  Even though the plot is thin and predictable – even those not familiar with the original “Faust” tale can guess how the plot will turn out – the passion and energy with which it is told, at brisk place, are evident. The acting may appear exaggerated to modern Western audiences but actors playing the main characters do their utmost to portray their characters’ feelings, emotions and pet fears.

The plot may remind readers here of the Book of Job in the Bible, Job being a fellow hit by many calamities – his children dying, his enterprises going bust – and undergoing trials set by God to test his faith. The Archangel Gabriel rebukes  Mephisto (for Mephistopheles) for glorying in war, violence and bloodshed. Both agree to make an example of Faust (Gösta Ekman), an ageing alchemist and healer, and subject him to a trial of his spiritual faith, with Mephisto (Emil Jannings) declaring that he will own Faust’s soul at the end. The deal having been struck, Mephisto promptly blasts the plague over Faust’s home town and Faust is helpless to prevent mass deaths. He casts all his books of knowledge into a bonfire but one book reveals a path out of his dilemma: he can appeal to the Prince of Darkness to gain power. Faust takes this path and meets Mephisto who gives him great power to heal others. Faust promptly starts using this power to bring people back to life but when they discover him shunning the cross, they reject him. Faust then appeals to Mephisto to take him away and give him youth; Mephisto does so, under certain conditions.

In his new youthful guise and living in a new country, Faust seduces an aristocratic woman, whose seduction comes to be the ruin of her marriage. Eventually tiring of the woman, Faust wishes to go home. Mephisto takes him back and Faust meets a young woman, Gretchen (Camilla Horn), of pure heart and soul. His desire and lust for Gretchen leads Faust to seduce her as well – but as with the aristocrat, so too does Faust’s desire cause destruction of Gretchen’s family and ruin the girl’s reputation. Gretchen is punished for harlotry and, much later, is tried and convicted for the murder of her child. She is condemned to burning at the stake. On hearing that Gretchen is to be burned, Faust rushes to save her.

Ekman plays both the old and the young Faust well but (as viewers might expect), Jannings steals the film as the malevolent yet often comic Mephisto. Horn’s performance as Gretchen is not bad but the character is definitely very stereotyped as a fallen innocent girl. The real stars of the film though are the sets, influenced as they are by German expressionism, the cinematography and the special effects.  A highly memorable early scene shows Mephisto, grown giant, spreading his black wings over Faust’s town and blowing black clouds of plague through it. The special effects which include animation are bold and incredible for the period in which the film was made.

While the film’s message of the redeeming power of love and self-sacrifice may be heartening, in its own way the film is also quite bleak. In order to understand the true power of God’s love and compassion for humanity, Faust is forced to experience the deepest despair possible and the corruption that having power over others and objects can bring. One might ask if it was really all that necessary for so much suffering and death to occur just so Faust can realise the error and selfishness of his behaviour and actions. Gretchen loses all her family and ultimately her life as a result of Faust’s actions towards her. Also, if God is willing to horse-trade humans with the Devil just to prove a point about love and redemption, is He really worthy of worship?

The Pianist: a potentially great film let down by shallow characterisation and a bland and thin plot

Roman Polanski, “The Pianist” (2002)

Polanski has been a very significant director capable of making very moving and epic films with a strong message about the survival of vulnerable individuals in situations that threaten to overwhelm them psychologically and spiritually as well as physically. In “The Pianist” though, the objective of translating the memoirs of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (1911 – 2000), who survived Nazi German occupation of his homeland in spite of the dangers that faced him as a Jew, seems to have defeated the Polish director. While the film appears on the surface to be faithful in recounting the events that Szpilman observed and sometimes participated in, and is restrained in the way it portrays violence and brutality, it makes little attempt to study its protagonist’s psychology and his reactions to the brutality that robs him of his family and everything he has ever known, in addition to chronicling what happened in Warsaw from the time Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany in September 1939 to its liberation by the Soviet Army in 1945. The result is a film that can feel very arduous and bland with a thin story stretched even thinner by the film’s 140-minute length.

The film follows Szpilman (Adrien Brody) from the time he and his family are rounded up in Warsaw and forced into a crowded ghetto with other Jewish families where they all try to keep up the appearance of a normal society – Szpilman finds work playing piano in a cafe for upper class Jews – while food supplies gradually dwindle and the overcrowding that occurs as more Jews are pushed into the ghetto leads to unsanitary conditions resulting in poor health and disease. Eventually everyone is forced to walk to the train station where they will be transported in cattle trucks to the Treblinka concentration camp. Szpilman is pulled away in time by a Jewish Sonderkommando police officer while the rest of his family is sent to the camp; Szpilman will never see his parents or his siblings again.

From then on, Szpilman struggles to survive inside and outside the Warsaw Ghetto with the help of others, including former fellow Polish Radio employees Andrej Bogucki (Ronan Vibert) and his wife Janina (Ruth Platt). Szpilman helps supply ammunition to ghetto inmates planning a revolt against the Nazi oppressors (this is the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943) and later witnesses the Warsaw Uprising, undertaken by the Polish underground resistance movement, in mid-1944. Like the Jewish revolt, this uprising fails, and in their anger the Germans systematically destroy the whole of Warsaw. Szpilman flees the apartment where he is hiding and find shelter in an attic of a house which turns out to be the headquarters of a Nazi German army unit. A German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld, discovers Szpilman in hiding and learns that he is a pianist. Hosenfeld allows Szpilman to stay in the attic, if Szpilman will play the piano for him when he visits with food and clothing.

Watching Brody as Szpilman, good as he is and thoroughly deserving of the Academy Award for Best Actor won in 2003, I could not but feel that the character is essentially passive and helpless, and survives mainly through luck and the beneficence of others including the Wehrmacht officer. There are not enough moments in the film where Szpilman is inspired by thoughts of once again performing for Polish Radio or in concerts to continue living. His scenes with significant others such as Hosenfeld, the Boguckis and a radical activist in the Warsaw Ghetto are rather perfunctory and the audience has no real sense of these people making a deep impression on Szpilman. (For that matter, the characters of these people are also woefully under-developed.) At the end of the film, Szpilman seems little different from his youthful self back in September 1939. His effort to find Hosenfeld after the war is treated too sparingly and seems like an afterthought tacked inserted into the film’s coda. What might have helped the film develop some psychological depth is occasional moments where Brody’s voice narrates from the English translation of Szpilman’s memoirs passages of conversations he has with the people who save his life, what they talk about, what he thinks of them and they of him. The unlikely friendship between a starving, sickly Jew and the Nazi officer could have been invested with curiosity on the part of both about each other, what each thinks the other will do after the war and if he will have any regrets about the war and his participation in it.

With a flat matter-of-fact story culled from the memoirs, lacking in much insight, combined with a minimal style of direction and cinematography, the film seems much too long, especially in its middle part where Szpilman scurries from one hiding-place to another and major events happen around him as a helpless observer, and viewers not familiar with the history of Warsaw and Poland during the Second World War will become bored very quickly.

The film does work very well as a fictional chronicle of the tragedies that befell the Jewish community in Warsaw and of the failed revolts against the Nazis that resulted in the petulant actions the German occupiers took against the city itself by razing the majority of its buildings to the ground and destroying its culture. In its own minimalist way, “The Pianist” can be very moving and quite emotional as Szpilman manages – but only just – to survive the war and rejoin Polish Radio. Unfortunately though the plot is too paper-thin and the characters not defined enough for the movie to be more than just good.

Oh Boy: a young man without purpose and focus comes to accept responsibility and care for the world

Jan Ole Gerster, “Oh Boy” (2012)

Debut film for German director Jan Ole Gerster, “Oh Boy” is a tragicomedy detailing 24 hours in the life of a young man, Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling), who lives without purpose and seems cut off from others in a gritty and bustling Berlin of the early 21st century. As soon as Niko wakes up one day, nearly anything and everything that can go wrong does. His girlfriend walks out on him, his psychologist won’t give him back his driver’s licence after his drink driving incident, his dad cuts off his monthly allowance after discovering Niko dropped out of law school two years ago, he gets busted for not having a valid train ticket by two inspectors … and he just can’t get a decent cup of regular coffee anywhere in a city supposedly famous for coffee and cakes.

As the hapless Niko, Schilling puts in a remarkable performance in portraying a young man out of sorts with the world and himself. Nearly everyone he meets resembles him in some way, above all in their inability to come to terms with reality and accept responsibility for their actions and those actions’ consequences, and for the welfare of others. Niko blunders from one scenario to another where an actor’s obsession with perfection is a cover for his fear of embarrassing himself in parts for films and plays, where a young woman’s struggle with a past childhood of obesity also involves her own personal confrontation with low self-esteem and need for love and acceptance, and where a married couple live at opposite ends of a building (top and basement) because they cannot communicate with each other. Niko’s encounter with a drunken aged gentleman who rants about the events of Kristallnacht back in 1938 finally galvanises the young man into taking appropriate action to try to save the elderly man’s life later on … with mixed results ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Berlin is a significant character with shots of the city punctuating the plot at various critical points along the way and acting as links between scenes, leading into a new plot development. An intimately moody, jazzy soundtrack helps reinforce key elements in the film, whether these are to emphasise the city’s dark, alienating nature or Niko’s alienation in the world around him. The film’s black-and’white look renders people’s facial features fairly sharply and the cinematograhy, often employing a wide panoramic approach, showcases Berlin in all its confusing, often contradictory and chaotic glory with incredible precision.

Through characters like Niko, the hapless actor Matze and the young woman Julika who still thinks herself fat in spite of her svelte figure, “Oh Boy” makes the point that Germany as a whole still hasn’t completely accepted its responsibility for its Nazi past and the sufferings that Germans inflicted on others throughout Europe. Beneath the bohemian pretensions, the fascination with experimental and avant-garde art forms, the hippie lifestyles and the punk haircuts, society is still as class-ridden and obsessed with material greed and self-interest as ever. Niko learns the hard way that if he wants connection with others, that if he doesn’t want to be lonely and alienated, he must offer connection first. Only then, the next day, Niko might be able to have that cup of coffee he spent the last 24 hours crawling for.

Torn Curtain: an unremarkable spy thriller film let down by poor casting and a laboured script

Alfred Hitchcock, “Torn Curtain” (1966)

To properly appreciate how good a director Alfred Hitchcock was over a career of 50+ years, one needs to see the lesser films he made as well as the better or more notorious ones (like “Psycho” or “The Birds”) that everyone remembers. Any other director trying to make “Torn Curtain” with the constraints Hitchcock suffered would have ended up making a very mediocre film; it’s to Hitch’s credit that in spite of an over-long and laboured script, an undistinguished music score, having no say in the choice of lead actors,  and working in a genre that ill-suited him, he was able to make a competent spy thriller film that is sometimes visually gorgeous and which emphasises the dangerous nature of espionage for ordinary people who choose to participate in it for motives other than greed, and the cynicism of those who use and exploit the public’s idealism and loyalty to achieve murky ends.

US nuclear physicist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) agrees to carry out a dangerous mission in which he pretends to defect to East Germany to obtain a formula from an eccentric professor at the University of Leipzig. His mission is nearly derailed by his assistant / fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) who follows him, determined to find out what he’s up to after seeing a telegram message meant for him only while on board a ship taking them both to a science conference in Copenhagen. While Sarah takes some convincing by Armstrong’s East German security to defect with him, Armstrong himself needs clues and directions to make his way across East Germany to Leipzig to find the professor and trick the older man into giving up the necessary secret formula. In his quest, Armstrong nearly comes undone when East German security agent Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) follows him and threatens him. Armstrong and a farmer’s wife (Carolyn Colwell) dispose of Gromek in an excruciating fight scene – but this has unfortunate consequences for both Armstrong and Sherman when government authorities realise that Gromek is missing and trace his last movements to the farm that Armstrong has had to visit.

The film divides into two very uneven halves: the first half contains most of the suspense, thrills and tensions; the second half unfortunately tends to drag due to the nature of the plot in which most of the action takes place early on and then the fall-out from that action takes up the rest of the story. (In this, “Torn Curtain” follows the structure of “Psycho”.) This means that whatever tension arises in the rest of the film depends greatly on the two lead actors being seen to care for one another and having a strong connection as they try to escape from East Germany; in this, both Newman and Andrews’ performance falls flat. The two actors do what they can in their own way but there is little on-screen chemistry between them and their acting conforms to rule. Hitchcock and Newman were known not to have worked well together: Hitchcock was unimpressed with Method acting which Newman and other actors of his generation relied upon. Possibly the tension between the director and his lead actor actually improved Newman’s performance in the film (especially in the fight scene with Kieling) but on the whole the acting from the leads is very ordinary. Andrews should have been a sparkling and assertive presence but her role turns out to be a passive and subdued one that makes little use of her talent and potential to be a more feisty and active heroine – in a film where the male lead finds himself in situations where he needs help from women!

The plot is not always credible and some of its twists and turns are too light-hearted and implausible especially when put up against the brutal violence of Newman’s fight scene. The juxtaposition of the brutality and some of the sillier scenes certainly highlights the riskiness and uncertainty involved in espionage and the danger it poses to ordinary people who agree to do it. While Hitchcock could certainly manage both vicious violence and comedy, both need a solid plot and a good cast to carry off both genres and their elements, and the tensions that arise from that combination. For a good example of such a film, viewers should refer to “North by Northwest”; by contrast, “Torn Curtain” is its lesser sibling. Fortunately “Torn Curtain” is saved by its underlying themes of deception and commitment (be it commitment to a relationship or political ideals) as opposed to self-interest, and distrust of and contempt for government authorities that would cynically rely on untrained individuals to carry its work for them yet force them to make their own way back to safety when plans backfire.

The film’s best moments are in an early wordless scene where Gromek pursues Armstrong through a museum, their fight scene and some of the later chase scenes through rural countryside. In some of these scenes, Hitchcock is an undoubted master of wide-scene filming and direction, and the cinematography is very beautiful. The suspense is taut and spellbinding.

Run Lola Run: a mundane crime thriller plot set in a highly deterministic universe where humans run in preprogrammed loops

Tommy Tykwer, “Lola rennt / Run Lola Run” (1998)

A mundane plot set in Berlin about a young couple who have to replace a stash of money they need to deliver to a gang leader after one of them has accidentally left it on the train becomes an exploration of the influences of free will, determinism, random occurrence and their consequences in this fast-paced flick. A mostly techno music soundtrack, the use of animation and cinema verite techniques and an appealing main character who acts on impulse and whose colourful look contrasts strongly with her surroundings flesh out the film’s themes and add zip. In spite of the dazzling visual effects and methods used to prop up the story, the message they spin out is a fairly depressing one in which humans are no more than puppets being manipulated by unseen, unconscious forces that pervade the universe.

Lola (Franka Potente) is supposed to meet her boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) and take him to meet his gangland boss Ronnie to deliver 100,000 Deutschmarks. Lola’s moped is stolen so Manni catches the train to deliver the money but panics on seeing ticket inspectors and leaves the train, forgetting to take the money with him. At the last minute he sees a homeless man pick up the money and tries to follow him but fails. He phones Lola at home, blaming her for the loss of the moped and tells her to stump up the money to replace the lost money and meet him at a public phone booth.

At this point the film divides into three versions of how Lola’s quest to get more money and save Manni from possibly being killed by Ronnie turns out. In the first version, Lola appeals to her wealthy banker father for help which is refused and Manni in desperation robs a supermarket. Lola meets Manni but are surrounded by police and the standoff between them and the youngsters ends badly. In the second version, Lola again appeals to her father for help and ends up robbing his bank but again the events that follow on don’t have a happy ending. In the third version, Manni manages to find the homeless man and get the money back from him, the moped thief ends up a cropper in a traffic accident and Lola goes into a casino and wins two bets resulting in takings of more than what she and Manni need to give to Ronnie.

In all three scenarios Lola meets characters whose lives spin out into wildly different directions as a result of her encounters. In the first run, Lola meets a woman pushing a pram, who is later shown being jailed for stealing a baby after losing custody of her own; in the second run, the same woman wins a lottery and she and her family embark on a life of luxury; in the third run, the woman becomes religious. A cyclist who offers to sell Lola his bicycle becomes a hospital patient falling in love with a nurse in the first run; in the second run, he becomes homeless; in the third run he sells his bike to the homeless man who has Manni’s cash. In all three scenarios there is a car crash involving a bank employee and Manni’s boss Ronnie but the details of the car crash differ: in the third scenario, Lola’s father is in the bank employee’s car at the time of the crash and he apparently dies at the crash scene. A security guard may or not may suffer a heart attack in these scenarios and a pane of glass being carried over a pedestrian crossing may or may not be hit by an ambulance (which might be carrying the guard). All of these scenarios emphasise how a chance meeting, a chance coincidence or a chance event may spark off a series of other incidents and events that overall come to have tremendous impacts on the lives of the people they affect directly and indirectly. What decisions Lola may make in accepting or not accepting a lift or fobbing off a vendor might have less influence on people than random events. The various encounters and incidents that occur while Lola is out racing around the streets suggest the universe is much more determinist and that for all she or Manni might do, they and the rest of the characters in the film have much less control over their fates than they realise.

What remains dormant in “Run Lola Run” though is an inquiry into why Lola and Manni are in the predicament they find themselves, why in the first place they are working for a king-pin for a gang and where Manni and Lola got the money they were supposed to deliver to Ronnie before Lola’s moped was stolen. Why does Manni blame Lola for losing the moped in the first place and what does the blame game say about their relationship? When all is said and done, the viewer realises that Lola is not a very resourceful youngster, relying on Daddy Banker to bail her and Manni out of trouble. Lola’s troubled family relationships hint at how a wealthy spoilt daughter of a banker who cheats on his wife might end up in a bad crowd but there’s no suggestion of how the girl can escape such confining circumstances. Director Tykwer appears not to question the social and economic order in which his characters live out their lives and as a result the film suggests no possibility of a change in Lola’s dysfunctional family dynamics: her father will continue to have an affair with his secretary or wind up dead, her mother will stay drunk and zonked out on daytime TV soaps, and Lola and Manni will spiral deeper into the dangerous world of drug-couriering. It’s as if in Tykwer’s world humans are little more than robots being run by programming loops.

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?

The Embrace of the Serpent: a film condemning European colonialism and its effects also carries a message of reconciliation and hope

Ciro Guerra, “The Embrace of the Serpent / El Abrazo de la Serpiente” (2015)

Filmed on location in the Amazon rainforest region, this remarkable film features two parallel stories that involve the shaman Karamakate set 30 years apart. In the earlier story, German explorer / ethnographer Theo Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), accompanied by man-servant Manduca (Yauenku Migue), is ailing from a severe illness and needs treatment and a cure; he is brought to the young Karamakate (Niblio Torres) who initially declines to help as he distrusts Europeans for having destroyed his people and their culture. After Theo tells the shaman that he has seen some of his people and can take him to them, K agrees to go with him and Manduca and lead them to the yakruna plant that will apparently cure Theo. Theo promises to abide by various prohibitions that the shaman places on him. The threesome endure a testy relationship while sailing on the Amazon due to K’s distrust of Manduca for abandoning his culture for that of European ways and of Theo for being white. Manduca loyally defends Theo who bought his freedom from a rubber plantation owner. On their journey, the trio encounter a mission run by a lone priest for abandoned orphans; the priest has forbidden the children from using their own languages and runs a severe religious Christian regime that includes physical punishment.

Years later, American botanist Richard Evans (Brionne Davis), using an English translation of Theo’s published notes, posted to Germany by Manduca after the German died in the rainforest, comes to the Amazon to find Karamakate. Evans’ real purpose is to find disease-free rubber trees for the US, since the usual Southeast Asian sources of rubber have been overtaken by Japan during the Second World War; but he conceals this from Karamakate, telling the shaman he is interested in finding the plant that healed Theo for its medicinal qualities.

Through both stories the film is a powerful exploration of the extent to which European culture has devastated native Amazon cultures and peoples with the consequent loss of native knowledge and human connections with nature. In both stories, Theo and Richard must learn to divest themselves of material possessions and Western assumptions and patterns of thinking, and to listen to and follow their inner voices, and rediscover their inner lives and worlds through dreaming; only by doing so can they find what they have been truly seeking, which is the nature of reality and finding their true selves and place in the cosmos. Karamakate for his part must also learn what his true purpose is as the lone survivor of his people and the sole repository of all their knowledge and history. Just as the white men must learn that the yakruna plant cannot be abused for profit or grown in ways that abuse its sacred properties, so Karamakate is led on his own spiritual path and release from the emptiness he has felt for allowing his anger at European and mestizo abuse of the yakruna plant to overcome him and cause Theo’s death 30 years earlier. He comes to realise his knowledge isn’t just for his own people but is for the wider world beyond that needs it.

The monochrome look of the film gives it a surreal quality and the exquisite editing enables the narrative to shift back and forwards in time; this allows the film also to track the fortunes of the mission orphans over time. The lone priest who abused the orphans physically is replaced by a crazed self-appointed messiah. In this the film makes a statement about the effect that cultural genocide has had on Amazon peoples and contrasts the religious extremism encouraged by self-styled Christian leaders with the mystical journeys of Theo, Richard and Karamakate. The time shifts also enable viewers to experience time and Karamakate’s own experiences in particular as circular, highlighting the shaman’s own redemption and his frailties as a human.

The climax of the film is filmed in colour and seems a bit flat and disappointing but this is a minor quibble compared with the rest of the film. It is a strong and devastating critique of European colonialism and the capitalist quest to commodify and exploit the natural world for profit, and also shows a way in which all humans can find reconnection with the world of nature and the spirit world. Ultimately this is a film of redemption, reconciliation and hope.