Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927)

Opens with exciting abstractions, sunrise and shapes seen through blinds, then we catch a
train into Berlin and it chills out for a while, the depopulated city reminding me creepily of In My Room before people start to wake up and head to work (more trains), then the movie amps up again, the mass production lines looking very much like the ones I see on the Machine Pix twitter feed 100 years later. This movie probably works better as a city-story than Man with the Movie Camera does, though I love the fanciful effects and meta-scenes of the latter.

German Harold Lloyd:

In act II, telephone users and operators are compared to chattering monkeys and fighting dogs. I’d noticed a brief animal comparison in act I and shrugged it off, since a “symphony of a great city” wouldn’t do that to its people? Lunch, siesta, play – then hurry back to work, with a focus on newspapers. Motion of the day is exaggerated by strapping a camera to a rollercoaster.

Ruttmann died in WWII. He worked with Lotte Reiniger and Leni Riefenstahl, apparently knew Oskar Fischinger, and made a dream sequence in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen. Music by Eisenstein collaborator Edmund Meisel, cinematography by Murnau’s DP Karl Freund, conceived by Caligari writer Carl Mayer – everyone in silent cinema knew each other.

I also watched Ruttmann’s earlier Opus series…


Opus I (1921)

Ghostly motion blobs against a dirty dark background
About four different motions, mirrored, colored and repeated
A third of the way through, new shapes and variations, and more at a time
Next part adds dyed searchlights and sun pendulums and tumblecubes
The shapes never quite interacting, just almost


Opus II (1921)

The same shapes on more charcoaly textures, and with more interaction between shapes
Black and white with some soft blue and a shock of red towards the end


Opus III (1924)

Some new cube overlays and color pulsations look almost 3D
Factory-machinery rectangles then a blue field with 3D blob rotation in the center
The same Red ending as II


Opus IV (1925)

Pulsing horizontal blinds with walking verticals mixed in later – faster and faster till pale purple blobs take over, then the traditional red ending. More advanced music on this one, by Helga Pogatschar – I hadn’t noticed that each film has a different musician. Rewatching the opening of Berlin, there are the blinds and the blobs, like a mini Opus V.

Opens handheld with a total Veep gag, an incompetent newsman who turns the camera off whenever he meant to turn it on. Our newsman Armin (Hans Löw, who had a small part in Toni Erdmann) takes a girl home from a bar, makes an ass of himself and she ditches. He goes home to be with his father and dying grandma. Then he falls asleep by the river, and wakes up as the last man on earth.

The movie is into long takes, but not absurdly showy long takes (though a dizzy race through abandoned streets in a stolen sports car is impressive). The sounds of dying grandma, and a dying dog the next day, are prominent and awful, and seem to soundtrack Armin’s helplessness. But then there’s a jump forward by an unknown amount of time…

Michael Sicinski in Cinema Scope:

In cinematic terms, Köhler’s treatment of Armin’s survival is highly unique in that he solves almost all of his major crises in an undefined but clearly substantial temporal ellipsis. Following the time gap, Köhler gives us a completely transformed Armin. In a nearly silent second act, we see that Armin has lost weight, become a skilled horseman, and, most astonishingly, built … a deluxe home with running water, solar panels, a menagerie of useful farm animals, and most importantly, fully reliable shelter from the elements.

Armin has a gas generator but is working on getting his hydroelectric going, to be fully self-sufficient. That old helpless Armin is still with us at times, like when his newborn goat (more notable sound effects: the mama goat giving birth) is stolen by a dog. This is Armin’s introduction to the only other person in the latter half of the movie, Kirsi (Elena Radonicich). And even though the movie has constructed a little paradise for these two survivors, when old “civilized” Armin starts creeping back, Kirsi decides to get back on the road.

Played Cannes in the Certain Regard with Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Rafiki and Border. Ulrich Köhler made Sleeping Sickness, and is not Ulrich Seidl who made that Safari film at True/False – I will try to stop getting my Ulrichs confused. His romantic partner Maren Ade is a producer, and I just saw her name on Synonyms as well.

As for what it all means, see the Sicinski article. Köhler:

For me, the interesting point is that a character who refused to adapt to a bourgeois lifestyle starts building a future once the society he didn’t want to be part of disappears.

Only a couple minutes after Buster Scruggs ended, the opening titles of this movie announced that it’s a story told in six chapters – what are the odds? Unexpected suicides in both movies too. It’s not that I wanted a faithful remake, since the plot is the weakest thing about Argento’s Suspiria, but what made them turn a bonkers Italian horror about witches in a dance studio into a 2.5-hour movie set in Berlin during the Baader-Meinhof hijacking, with long sections about a psychiatrist who lost his wife in the Holocaust? What’s the meaning of Tilda Swinton playing both Evil Mothers in charge of the studio and also the psychiatrist? Nice plot twist with Dakota Johnson (the older sister in Bad Times at the El Royale) appearing to be the fresh-meat new girl with especially good dance-murder skills, later revealed to be the reborn Mother Suspiriorum come to cleanse the school by killing one or both Tildas. I mean, this was a lot of movie for a single weeknight, so I think that’s what happened. I have mixed feelings, but pretty sure I need to keep watching all of Luca’s movies (this is my second of the year).

Chloe Grace is a paranoid escaped dancer in the opening scenes, then disappears forever, followed shortly by suspicious Olga, who gets gnarled up in the practice room. Mia Goth (A Cure for Wellness) is the dancer who shows Dakota around, and Jessica Harper cameos as the psychiatrist’s dead wife. Most unexpected name in the credits: The Turin Horse cinematographer Fred Kelemen as one of the cops who Psych Tilda asks for help. Writer David Kajganich has also done a Body Snatchers remake and a Pet Sematary remake.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky compares it to “the movies Nicolas Roeg was making around the same time, confounding mosaics of predestination and psychoanalysis … It’s a movie where most of the characters are liminal figures, mid-phase between identities. It is packed with doors, mirrors, ceremonies, rehearsals, shared secrets, and make-up, suggesting commonalities between the backstage world and the supernatural through collage.”

“This might sound strange, but the whole social infrastructure is slowly crumbling.”

This could be a companion piece to Collapse – it’s another monologue/interview with a lone man about how fragile and doomed our economic system is. Filmed evocatively in the empty office spaces of an abandoned bank, Rainer Voss was a top investment banker, now washed up and telling all about the operations, the personalities, the daily work life, the lies they told to their customers and themselves.

“Is deregulation to blame? No. Was it a prerequisite? Yes.”

He also discusses his family life, and sounds like a terrible dad. For the first half I thought his scarf was a fashion statement, then I realized it’s winter and the empty building is unheated. This movie sounds dry from a description, but people like me who are sure that society as we know it is dying, but not sure how it’s gonna go down, ought to find it gripping

“What I want is to live in a way that suits me.”

A philosophical movie starring Kim Min-hee, who has become my favorite actress at playing drunk. Part one is a half hour long and set in Germany, actress Younghee hanging out with a friend (Young-hwa Seo, Hill of Freedom‘s letter-reader) – turns out the actress is fleeing Seoul after an affair gone bad. They go music shopping, then eat pasta at Mark Peranson’s house (with a La Chinoise poster in the kitchen). In the dreamlike final scene, Younghee is left on the beach at night alone for just a minute then is seen being carried away unconscious, presumably by the stalker we’d previously seen walking at them It Follows-style.

Part two opens with the lights coming up at a movie theater and no mention of the beach incident. She has returned to her hometown in Korea and meets up with some old friends, first at a coffee shop some of them run, then for a dinner party. First there’s Hae-hyo Kwon (the prickly guy in part one of In Another Country) then meek Jae-yeong Jeong (main dude in Right Now, Wrong Then). She’s staying at a fancy hotel with friend Seon-mi Song (The Day He Arrives), who decides to be Younghee’s assistant. Younghee is taking a break from her career and daily routines, evaluating her life, but doesn’t seem to be doing too badly – rumors are the director she recently broke up with is worse off. Back at the beach alone, not quite at night but perhaps the early evening, she dreams a meeting with the director (I think he’s the professor from Oki’s Movie) after his crew stumbles across her, and he wants to read her a book passage about love with the crew sitting awkwardly around.

The stalker from part one reappears as a window washer:

It’s a good Hong movie, probably not my favorite, but viewers who follow his personal news were mostly stunned that he made this Kim Min-hee movie about the aftermath of a scandalous affair with a film director right after getting caught having a scandalous affair with Kim Min-hee.

Right before True/False I watched a few knotty films that I’m having trouble writing about. This was the most alluring of the bunch, and though The Challenge played last year’s fest, and The Disaster Artist is a feature about real people making a feature, and Wormwood is a semi-doc with reenactment footage about the impossibility of knowing real truth, somehow Western is the one that I feel best exemplifies the spirit of the month. It’s a fiction film with non-actors, delicately balancing a mix of tones and ideas, usually beautiful and unaccountably tense though there’s not much action (reminded me of La Ciénaga in that regard).

Meinhard is a quiet mustache guy on a German work crew on a job in Bulgaria. His compatriots spend their downtime drinking and harassing the locals, while M. spends time alone, finds a horse and rides it into town, and over the next few weeks drifts ever closer to the locals, particularly horse owner and local business bigwig Adrian. Negotiations and conflict over the treatment of local women, shipments of stone, use of water, and the horse, most of which come down to German foreman Vincent on one side, and Adrian’s group on the other with M. floating between.

But much of the movie is quiet and peaceful, a highlight being the easygoing conversations Meinhard has in town with people who don’t know each others’ languages:
“I lost a brother.”
“You’re saying something sad.”

Meinhard:

Adrian:

Also a reference by the Germans to being back in the country after 70 years – that would be Bulgaria’s alliance with the nazis… a scene of tough guys around a campfire remarking on the softness of one’s hair… and already the second movie I’ve seen this year with Bulgarian folk dancing. Played Cannes UCR with the Cantet, the Kurosawa, the Amalric, the Rasoulof.

Andrew Chan in Cinema Scope called it “a subtle variation on the western’s themes of individuality, community, and male aggression, using these timeless tropes to frame the cultural fissures in modern-day Europe.” Grisebach, from the interview:

I was happy when I found this premise of German construction workers living in a foreign country, because I felt that then I had something more ambivalent. I am always afraid when something is too direct — I don’t trust it anymore. For me it’s not easy to say that something is like this or like that. I was really interested in how xenophobia exists between the lines, how it isn’t so direct, and how this contrasts with the official ways of telling history in Germany.

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.