I’ve been practicing my German language recently, and making good progress, as this week our friends from Bochum are coming to stay and when we last saw them (at Easter) I promised I would be fluent when we next met.
A big part of my learning has come from watching German (and Austrian) DVDs, and trying not to rely on the subtitles too much (it would be impossible at the moment to do without them completely). I’ve bought, hired and borrowed every single one I could find recently, and have had a great time watching them. I’ve been very impressed by the general quality, and wondering whether this is because German films are, in general, very good, or because only the ones worth watching ever make it into translation are the best.
Here’s a quick summary of what I’ve watched these last few weeks:
Downfall (Der Untergang)- the last days in Hitler’s bunker. *Extremely* gruesome in parts.
I saw this at the cinema. Watching it again on DVD, it loses none of its impact. Incredible.
The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) – the Oscar-winning (Oskar-winning?) film of the book. Pretty gruesome in parts – eels and pee soup! Rowan quite liked it though, as did I.
Das Experiment – The first film by Oliver Hischbiegel, director of Der Untergang. Twenty men are assigned roles as “guards” and “prisoners” in a simulated prison. Insanity ensues. A really gripping thriller (not a genre I’m normally very keen on) and an amazing first film, although the portrayal of the scientists, almost willing the violence, is a bit far-fetched at times.
Funny Games– an incredibly powerful film. I don’t want to say too much about it, as it would spoil the "enjoyment" for anyone who wants to watch it in the future. Director Michael Haneke is very strongly against violence in movies, and here there is no violence on screen throughout the film, but it is probably the single scariest movie I have ever seen. Absolutely horrifying, gripping, and thought-provoking. If you get to watch the DVD, check out the review & director’s interview included – it seems to me that Haneke has achieved exactly what he set out to do with this movie, and I guess that is a sign of real talent. The night after I watched the film, I experienced the worst nightmares I have had in many, many years. Despite, or because of, this, I urge you to watch it if you have the chance. Oh yeah, it also has John Zorn and Naked City on the sound track, wow!
Anatomie 2 – probably the weakest of all the German films I watched, though still perfectly passable fare. An idealistic young man trains to be a doctor because he wants to help his brother who has muscular dystrophy. He is initiated into a group who are creating artificial bionic muscles, potentially perfect to help with his brother’s condition. But of course there’s a dark side, and as always when scientists appear in films, they are the bad guys, bent on getting results from their experiment whatever the human cost. Yawn. Pretty good thriller though.
Good Bye, Lenin! – a woman suffers a heart-attack and goes into a coma shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. When she re-awakens nine months later, her children are told to keep her from any shocks. As she was committed to her country, they re-create the DDR in their small flat and try, with increasing difficulty, to maintain the illusion that nothing has changed, even going to the extent of mocking-up news footage in the old communist style, and piping it to her TV, to explain away any incongruities. This is a really beautiful bitter-sweet film which explores aspects of humanity in a touching and non-trivial way, and is also very funny. Wunderbar!
The Miracle of Bern (Das Wunder von Bern) –
1954, a boy’s father returns home from prision in the Soviet Union where he has spent the last 11 years. His disciplinarian streak casts a shadow over the family, but they are father and son are eventually reconciled and Germany get to win the World Cup in Switzerland. This is probably the closest to a Hollywood film of the lot, with it’s structure, the overcoming of adversity and the feel-good ending. Much better done than most Hollywood fare though, and the art direction is absolutely incredible: this is one of the best looking films I have ever seen, and the stylisation reminded me in a way of Far From Heaven, although where Far From Heaven’s 1950s America was all pastel pink and blue, with orangey-yellow autumn leaves, this movie’s 1950s Germany was all mud browns, olive drab and orange flecks of rust. It was also fascinating hearing somebody Swiss (the cleaning lady at the hotel), listening to that thick rural-sounding version of German and instantly recognising it from my many trips to the Bernese Oberland in my youth. Also, this covers an aspect of German history (ex-soldiers returning from prison in the USSR) which I had never really considered and which obviously had a great impact.
The Edukators (Die Fetten Jahre Sind Vorbei) – Berlin anarchists break into rich peoples’ houses, where they re-arrange furniture and leave scary notes, before turning into accidental kidnappers. Pretty good, but not great, and the ending stretches belief a little.
Dog Days (Hundstage) – A
Short-Cuts-type film following a number of different people around simultaneously. This film is pretty dark, very sexually explicit, quite depressing, and warts-n-all realistic in a way which I have rarely if ever seen in a movie. I found it totally compelling, but come the end I felt as if I’d missed something and would probably have to watch it another couple of times to get the most out of it. One thing is not in doubt though: most of these characters do not like women very much!
I have also been revisiting the awesome Werner Herzog/Klaus Kinski DVD boxed set, containing:
Aguirre, The Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes) – Conquistador goes increasingly mad on a journey down the Amazon. Bizarre and hallucinatory.
Woyzeck – film version of the fragmentary Georg Büchner play. Perhaps slightly dull in comparison to the other stuff here, but some stunning perfomances (and the German is easier to understand without subtitles than most of the others).
Nosferatu the Vampyre (Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht) – remake of the Fritz Lang film. The Dracula story, but with a different name (because the book was still in copyright when Lang made his original).
Fitzcarraldo – failed Irish-South American railway tycoon drags a paddle steamer over a mountain so that he can harvest rubber and realise his dream of building an opera house on the Amazon. Sounds crazy, and it is, but it’s also an absolutely brilliant film. Some stunning cinematography and, again, hallucinatory Amazonian scenes.
Cobra Verde – Brazilian bandit goes to Africa to become a slave trader, based on the Bruce Chatwin book The Viceroy of Ouidah.
I really love this film, almost as much as Fitzcarraldo. There is a scene where some young African girls sing a song which is absolutely haunting.
My Best Fiend (Mein liebster Feind) – Documentary on Herzog’s experiences working with Kinski. Wow. Gulp.