Interesting and (obviously) expertly made and acted drama following U.S. lawyer Donovan hired to defend captured Russian spy Abel in American courts. He gets behind the job more than his bosses expected and is later talked into helping negotiate a trade: his client for an American spy the Russians captured, and possibly also for a student who found himself on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall.

I got mostly a Spielberg/Hanks flavor from it, but Sam Adams caught some good Coen Bros. screenplay moments:

Donovan’s first scene in Bridge of Spies shows him haggling with another lawyer over an insurance settlement – a strangely protracted exchange that bears the mark of the Coens’ habit of falling in love with their own dialogue. But the skirmish between them is linguistic as well as legal: Donovan’s opponent keeps referring to the driver of the car that crashed and injured five men as “your guy”, and Donovan keeps demurring: “We are talking about a guy who’s insured by my client. He’s not my guy.” The issue of whether Abel is or is not “his guy” is later raised in court, and it hangs over the rest of the movie. Is Donovan simply a lawyer doing his appointed duty, or has he actually begun to understand how the world looks from Abel’s point of view?

Now Playing: a Billy Wilder comedy set in West Berlin, the blacklist-busting Spartacus,
British horror with German director, and 1962 West German murder mystery based on British novel:

Appearances by Alan Alda and Amy Ryan. Mark Rylance won an oscar for playing the passive and unflappable captured spy, whose signature line whenever asked why he’s not worrying is “would it help?” Adam Nayman’s Cinema Scope writeup, which I’m too tired to type up here, gets to the bottom of some of my ambivalent feelings about the story and the cold war atmosphere.

Oscar for best actress, obviously, and also seven more (director, cinematography, supporting for Joel Grey) but picture went to The Godfather. I don’t know Liza Minnelli from much – just this and Arrested Development – but she’s perfect in both. The movie though, eh, not my favorite nazi musical. Could’ve stood to be more musical, blurrier and more insane a la All That Jazz (I guess Fosse hadn’t had his drug-addled breakdown yet).

Brash dancer Minnelli gets a new roommate, closeted scholar Michael York. Both roomies have affairs with wealthy Max (Helmut Griem of The Damned and Les rendez-vous d’Anna) and help to hook up two of York’s English students (Fritz Wepper of The Bridge and Marisa Berenson, wife of Barry Lyndon). The nazi stuff is less foregrounded than I would’ve thought – they’re slowly going from a violent street cult to the dominant political party in the background of a story full of sympathetic gays and Jews. Fun times while they lasted, though. Interesting to watch this right before Phoenix, eliding the whole war in between.

Had to see this since I also just watched Obsession, another semi-remake of Vertigo. Nina Hoss (star of Petzold’s Barbara and Jerichow), of a rich family, escaped the holocaust but is presumed dead. She has actually had reconstructive facial surgery and looks like a different person, but still obsesses over her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld of Beloved Sisters and The Pasta Detectives) even though he may have saved himself by giving her up to the nazis.

Most of the movie is the tension of wondering how she could be so stupid to return to Johnny, leading to the very satisfying ending when she reveals her true self, thus claiming her family’s fortune while rejecting Johnny, who has been a slimeball the entire movie.

Petzold also made my second-favorite of the Dreileben trilogy (what’s Dominik Graf up to these days?). The final film by late cowriter Harun Farocki – my only previous experience with him was an essay film better talked about than watched.

A. Nayman:

What’s remarkable about Phoenix is how its Farockian didacticism – the fact that Nelly would rather try to reclaim her place and her identity in a German society that tried to exterminate her rather than go with Lene to settle in Palestine – is blended into its drama so that it becomes a film of ideas that is also a film of emotions.

Kinda impossible to describe this movie or why it’s so great. Because of the title the viewer pays close attention to the often-seen family cat, which isn’t all that strange. The family isn’t strange either, gathering for a large meal, mostly appearing without being given names or specific relations. The movie is strange, though, with its easygoing, playful and pleasant nature, and sudden bursts of string music and unusual cutting/framing sometimes making me expect intrigue.

Dissolve calls it “a beautiful, mysterious, beguiling cinematic doodle, and an absolute master class in mise-en-scène, unfolding in odd, fragmented frames and precisely choreographed movement within those frames,” and Mike D’Angelo calls it “the rare film that offers a new way of looking at the everyday world.” Zurcher’s first film, actually his student film, begun at a workshop with Bela Tarr.

J. Kiang:

Unlike many puzzles that tease solutions but never deliver, here the film becomes more engaging as time goes on, so that by the end our attention was unexpectedly rapt. .. In this mini-universe that refers only to itself (imagine a non-creepy Dogtooth), it’s the viewer who’s the weirdo, trying to apply patterns that simply don’t fit, onto a system that abides by its own unseen logic instead.

M. Sicinski’s commentary in Cinema Scope is the best I’ve found.

A visual inventory of various key objects… goes quite a ways toward explaining Zürcher’s somewhat mysterious title. The interlude is not just a clarification, as if one were needed at this point, that objects in and of themselves are the true subjects of The Strange Little Cat (another point of contact with Tati, Bresson, and Ozu); it also represents a clearing of the decks of human dominance, so that we can witness something we might call “feline time.” The cat sees these things, but they have no meaning for her. Rather, they are both foreign (pure entities with no known use value) and absolutely familiar (part of her “turf”).

Funny that I’d watch this a couple days after The Tenant, not knowing of their connections. Both are made by Polish directors who started by working under Andrzej Wajda, both star Isabelle Adjani, involve protagonists living in apartments away from their native countries, and don’t seem like horror movies at all until they go nuts in the second half.

Sam Neill (same year he played Damien in Omen 3) returns to wife Adjani (a couple years after Herzog’s Nosferatu) in divided Berlin after a long time away on a spy job (he gets paid in wads of cash). It’s a rocky homecoming, and there’s much yelling around their son Bob, but each claims to have been faithful – until Adjani’s friend Marjie (Fassbinder star Margit Carstensen) delights in telling Neill that Adjani has another man, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent of The Last Metro and The Serpent’s Egg), an annoying new-age super-self-confident dude whose mother (Johanna Hofer of Above Suspicion and A Farewell to Arms) supports the affair (Heinrich also has a wife and kid we never see). Screaming fights ensue (“If I’d known [Heinrich] existed in this world I’d have never had Bob with you”), Adjani acts more erratic and Neill acts more obsessed (he reverse-lookups Heinrich’s address in the white pages), and I’m worried that this won’t be a horror movie at all, but a relationship drama that says women are shrews who tear apart marriages with their selfish desires (Zulawski was inspired by his own bitter divorce).

Not a good sign for your relationship when you sit at different tables:

Heinrich vs. Neill:

But then! Neill hires a private eye (who is terribly obvious when tailing people) to follow his wife and it turns out she’s staying in a third apartment, a place Heinrich doesn’t know about, and he spins bouncing off the walls when he finds out. Investigating further (by walking right in), the detective is killed by a psychic demon, followed a few scenes later by his partner (huh, a sympathetic gay character in 1981). Yes, Adjani is cheating on both men with a Scanner tentacle-demon, and there’s a pod-person connection when Neill meets his son’s schoolteacher who is the spitting image of his wife but with green glowing eyes.

Adjani takes care of the detective’s partner:

Trouble in the subway:

Neill becomes crazily thrilled by all this, gives Heinrich the demon-apartment address then kills Heinrich himself in a bathroom when the demon doesn’t finish him off. He later blows up the apartment, stabs Marjie for good measure, provokes the cops (I don’t understand how he thought ramming their cars with a taxi would end well) and plots to escape with Adjani, but she has plans of her own, finally (amidst a police shootout) revealing her new glowing-green-eyed Sam Neill pod person (“I wanted to show it to you. It is finished now”), who escapes the shootout.

Bloody Sam Neill driving a motorcycle through Berlin screaming:

Banned in the UK, though Adjani won best actress in France (over Huppert, Ardant and Deneuve) and it was nominated at Cannes the year Wajda’s Man of Iron won. I liked this an awful lot, and am looking for more Zulawski movies (Third Part of the Night, The Devil and On The Silver Globe sound good).

Silly setup becomes more serious as it goes along. Jean Arthur (post-semi-retirement, in her second-to-last film role) is a buttoned-up U.S. Representative (from Iowa) visiting wrecked post-war Berlin to assess the morale (and morals) of the occupying troops. John Lund (of High Society) is a shady Iowan captain with a sharpie-drawn mustache who is playing the black market, drinking at nightclubs and covering for his girlfriend Marlene Dietrich. So soon after WWII, we know even the cynical Wilder won’t let Dietrich off the hook after Jean is shown films of her cavorting with Hitler himself. So Jean enlists Lund in her undercover operation to discover which American troop is covering for Dietrich. He’s now attempting to protect himself and his girl from the no-nonsense Arthur, so he pretends to fall in love with her as a distraction.

Dietrich sings “The Ruins of Berlin” (I know the Dex Romweber version), and man are the ruins impressive. There’s hardly a non-bombed-out building seen in the opening aerial shots and the scattered location shots from the ground. The contemporary NY Times review calls Lund “disarmingly shameless.” For some guy I’ve never heard of playing against two of my favorite actresses, he comes off surprisingly well.

Bright Lights says Wilder pitched the film’s concept as propaganda to the U.S. military in Germany, describing “an entertainment film with Rita Hayworth or Ingrid Bergman… with Gary Cooper if you wish… and with a love story — only with a very special love story, cleverly devised to sell us a few ideological items.” The military found the finished film unsuitable to be shown in Germany, believing that a movie which stars a morally compromised U.S. soldier sleeping with an eroticized nazi mightn’t be in their best interest.

Watched because Ade is one of Cinema Scope’s 50 Under 50, and this movie in their top ten of 2009. I didn’t love her previous feature The Forest for the Trees, but CS insisted that it gets better – and they’re right.

Gitti works in the music business and boyfriend Chris in architecture/renovation. They’re on vacation, unsuccessfully trying to avoid Chris’s frenemy/colleage Hans with his celebrity clothing designer wife Sana. Constants with Chris and Gitti seem to be social blunders around others (and sometimes worse, like when Gitti threatens Sana with a knife) and shitty, selfish behavior towards each other (this is usually Chris), culminating in Gitti leaving him and flying home early.

Shot handheld but nicely, with no incidental music, just a study of a few days with a couple who might not be meant for each other. Chris is Lars Eidinger of the new Peter Greenaway movie and Gitti is Birgit Minichmayr of Downfall and The White Ribbon.

E. Hynes in Reverse Shot: “Ade’s film is a perfectly complete portrait of romantic entanglement. Being on the inside can be brutal, but few things are as worthy of the trouble.” His appreciation of the movie is essential reading, made me reconsider it and realize what greatness people have been seeing in this unassuming character drama.

Kent Jones (who also reveals that Claire Denis loved it):

Where did she summon such a taut balance between tenderness and absolute ruthlessness, the kind of ruthlessness every filmmaker needs and few have the courage to exercise, the kind of tenderness few allow themselves the ability to summon on the set? … Everyone Else is a film of terrible power and absolute freedom, and it’s obvious that it’s only the beginning of the exploration.

Summer Without Gitti (2009, Maren Ade)

Chris is bored, makes dolls out of bits of ginger root, finally finds Hans. They climb trees. Hans goes away and Chris is bored and sad again. I watched this before the feature, but it’s obviously more clever in hindsight, Ade having re-edited scenes and outtakes from the feature to remove all presence of Gitti.

A different kind of trilogy, three filmmakers born in different decades each makes his own feature film set in the same town at the same time, rotating around a central event: a convicted murderer escapes from a hospital and kills again.

Quotes in italics below are from Dennis Lim’s great article in Cinema Scope, which is what got me watching the trilogy in the first place.

Beats Being Dead (Christian Petzold)

Clean-looking picture. Follows young hospital flunky Johannes. Broken up with Sara, a hospital director’s daughter, he picks up a girl he sees getting dumped by a band of motorcycle thugs and takes her home. Johannes proves to be a bit of a stalker, and Ana sees him following her everywhere, which is why I keep thinking this movie was the chapter entitled Don’t Follow Me Around, but no, that’s the next one. Hard to tell Johannes’s intentions – he seems entranced with Ana, but at the end I wonder if he was using her to get back with Sara. She’s not a good match for him – makes lots of bad decisions then cries about them. Either way, he does end up with Sara after Ana attacks her at a company party, and they go off to Berlin together. Johannes never realizes that the door he clumsily left open at the hospital last week allowed the killer to get free, nor that the killer eventually stalks Ana (just like Johannes has been doing) and kills her as he’s driving out of town.

Petzold inscribes cold, hard truths of class and money into almost every scene, fusing erotic tensions with socioeconomic ones.

Don’t Follow Me Around (Dominik Graf)

A deceptive story with a grainier look and a less driven feel than the first movie. Psychiatrist Jo (Jeanette Hain of that Kate Winslet movie The Reader) is dispatched to Dreileben to assist the police with the manhunt. Jo arrives, stays with old friend Vera and her husband Bruno, who seem to be having relationship trouble. The escaped-killer plot is mostly dropped as she sets her investigative skills towards her friend, discovering that they both dated the same man shortly before they met. Meanwhile, Jo’s work in town is cryptic until halfway through the movie it’s revealed that she never came to work on the killer case, but to investigate corruption, leading to the arrest of six local officers. Once this is wrapped up, Jo does work on the other case, enlisting an artist to bait the killer. Meanwhile, Vera leaves home suddenly, paying a visit to the mutual unseen ex, returning having learned more secrets as the movie reveals that he’s the father of Jo’s daughter. Despite (or because of) its sidetracks, it’s the most richly engrossing of the three movies.

Talky and witty, packed with revealing tangents and glancing micro-observations. Shot by Michael Wiesweg in soft-toned Super 16 – a striking contrast to the crisp, controlled visuals of the other two entries – Graf’s film makes a virtue of skittishness. The distractable camera snoops, wanders, lingers on odd details, and the narrative likewise keeps shifting its attention.

One Minute of Darkness (Christoph Hochhausler)

This one suffers from having nothing much to say. It follows the killer, Molesch (Stefan Kurt, who got to play Albert Speer in a Hitler movie), whose history, escape, various sightings, then capture have already been addressed in the other two movies. Here we see the escape in greater details – Molesch wandering through a back door (left open by Johannes) while in hospital to see his just-deceased mother. Then it’s on to narrow escapes (movie briefly becomes The Fugitive during a bridge scene), police incompetence, and Molesch’s unlikely (but quite typically movie-likely) truce with a runaway girl. And just as inspector Marcus (I love that the music has ringing tones, in tune with his tinnitis) figures out that Molesch was innocent of his original crime, Molesch of course kills Ana from the first movie (after stopping to burn down his dead mum’s house).

[the titular piece of missing surveillance footage] speaks to the impossibility of certainty in the absence of observable evidence, the danger of imposing stories onto what we cannot know for sure. This conundrum is, of course, intimately linked to the de-dramatized cinema of the Berlin School: the fear of narrative as, to quote Hochhausler, something that “contaminates the picture,” a lie, and what’s more, a lie that could become the truth.

Petzold has made at least two films I’ve read about: Barbara and Jerichow. Graf has done a lot of television, including something called Doktor Knock, which is what I’m going to name my metal band. Hochhausler made a few films I’ve never heard of.

Graf was born in 1952, Petzold in 1960, Hochhausler in 1972, and each has a distinct relationship to the now decade-old “new German cinema” that has come to be imprecisely known as the Berlin School. Graf, a respected senior figure and a stalwart of German television, predates the Berlin School’s emergence, and has criticized what he sees as the reticence and passivity of many of the films. Petzold is often identified as one of the movement’s de facto founders, part of the pioneering wave that studied at the dffb in the ’80s and ’90s. Hochhausler belongs (with Benjamin Heisenberg and Ulrich Kohler) to the Revolver-aligned second generation, whose careers have progressed and diverged in ways that reflect the constant sense of flux, born of habitual self-examination, that defines this loose group.

Indiewire:

Dreileben is not an epic story. A term like that is generally saved for adventures that are years long or involve arduous journeying. Instead of offering something like that, these three German filmmakers have given us a very dense, abstruse, enclosed saga; full of knotty liaisons and unsolved conflicts … Coincidences are played with often (some big, some small, some even unnoticeable) and certain elements/traits, such as deafness, carry over to different characters and situations. Rather than composing a grand narrative, the directors went above and beyond to provide a wealth of substance and meaning.

Not all mumblecore comedies of young-adult awkwardness come from the States, apparently. This one is from German filmmaker Ade, one of Cinema Scope’s 50 Under 50.

Melanie moves to a new town where she knows nobody, starting work as a teacher, breaking up with her boyfriend (who helps her move). She is enthusiastic to the point of desperation – gives all her neighbors gifts to introduce herself. She dodges a fellow teacher who wants to hang out with her, manages to make friends with a woman named Tina across the courtyard instead. But Tina has friends, throws parties, is in a relationship, deals with personal problems, and doesn’t want to hang out with Melanie 100% of the time – so Melanie becomes more and more desperate and stalkerish.

Adult life isn’t going too well. She even goes to a petting zoo and gets pushed around by little horses. Nothing intensely interesting happens until the final scene, where Melanie goes for a drive alone listening to Grandaddy and decides to crawl into the backseat and stare out the side window while the car is still going.

Pretty good little indie movie – I don’t get all the excitement, but I’ll take Cinema Scope’s word for it and watch her next movie. She’s also recently worked on Ulrich Kohler and Miguel Gomes movies I wanted to see. M. Peranson in Cinema Scope says this was her “DV student-film debut” and mentions that Melanie’s accent is a source of humor for native Germans.