7:44am Thursday 1st March 2012
By Parky at the Pictures
German cinema has been dominated since the fall of the Berlin Wall by three topics: the Third Reich, the Democratic Republic and the Red Army Faction. The results have been varied, but the magnitude of each subject has ensured that the films have been compelling both as works of reconstruction and as insights into the Germanic character.
One of the most cogent documentaries was Andres Veiel's Black Box BRD (2001) and now, a decade later, he returns to the 1960s to chronicle the relationship between Gudrun Ensslin and Bernward Vesper in If Not Us, Who. Coming in the wake of Christopher Roth's Baader (2002), Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) and Shane O'Sullivan's Children of the Revolution (2010) - not to mention Olivier Assayas's magisterial study of international terrorism, Carlos (2010) - this feels slightly like an afterthought. Neither Ensslin nor Vesper was discussed in much detail in any of the aforementioned and they rather feel like peripheral characters in their own biopic, despite the fact that Veiel has based his screenplay on Gerd Koenen's book Vesper, Ensslin, Baader: Prehistory of German Terrorism.
The scene is set in 1949, as the 10 year-old Bernward Vesper (Jonas Haemmerle) watches his father, Will (Thomas Thieme) kill his cat for attacking a nest of nightingales. All-but forgotten after being Hitler's favourite poet, Will still seethes with anti-Semitic fury and informs his heartbroken son that `cats are the Jews of the animal kingdom'. But, instead of being scarred by such brutality and bigotry, Bernward (August Diehl) grows up adoring his father and, in 1961, he is moved to set up a publishing house in Tübingen to reacquaint the public with his genius. He is assisted in the enterprise by Gudrun Ensslin (Lena Lauzemis), who had been raised as the fourth of seven children by moderate liberal parents Helmut and Ilse (Michael Wittenborn and Susanne Lothar), who are more than a little perplexed by her determination to bring about the rehabilitation of a second-rate writer they are happy to see wallowing in obscurity.
Vesper and Ensslin soon become lovers. But their romance and her qualification as a primry school teacher coincide with their growing radicalisation and they become involved in protests against the war in Vietnam and the West German government's failure to address a range of social injustice issues. However, around the time of the Shah of Iran's controversial visit in June 1967, Ensslin meets petty crook-turned-left-wing firebrand Andreas Baader (Alexander Fehling). Abandoning the frequently unfaithful Vesper and their infant son, Felix, she commits herself to the cause of civil disobedience, only to be arrested for the firebombing of two department stores in Frankfurt in April 1968.
Despite the pain of seeing Ensslin kissing Baader in the witness box, Vesper testifies on her behalf during her trial. Having fled while an appeal against their conviction was pending, Ensslin participated in the raid that freed the re-arrested Baader in May 1970 and they embarked upon a reign of terror that was finally ended by her detention in Hamburg in 1972. By this time, Vesper had committed suicide and Ensslin herself would die in mysterious circumstances at Stammheim Prison on the `death night' of 17 October 1977 following the murder of kidnapped industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer in reprisal for the storming of a hijacked Lufthansa aircraft by the West German anti-terrorist squad.
Much of the historical aspect of this near-mythical story is well known. But any hopes that Veiel will provide a psychological insight into the main protagonists are quickly dashed, as he opts for detailed re-enactment rather than considered analysis. Events are contextualised by newsreel clips and apposite pop songs and the acute sense of time and place is reinforced by Christian M. Goldbeck's production design, Bettina Marx's costumes and Judith Kaufmann's steady cinematography. Yet Vesper, Ensslin and Baader remain elusive.
August Diehl captures something of Vesper's dejection and drift into despair, while Fehling conveys the swagger of the rebel suddenly aware of the status conveyed upon him by his cause. But they are both upstaged by Lena Lauzemis, who makes Ensslin's transformation from pastor's daughter to gangster's moll seem eminently plausible. Moreover, she suggests the vulnerability beneath the outer absrasiveness that makes her shifting ideology and attitude to violence seem so shocking. But, even though he struggles to accommodate such figures as Ulrika Meinhof, Dieter Kunzelmann and Rudi Dutschke, Veiel is better at dealing with the political than the human side of the scenario. Consequently, this feels more like a series of well-researched re-enactments that smack more of activist nostalgia than intellectual detachment.
The dark side of the Teutonic soul is further exposed in Michael. However, while Veiel seeks to humanise the Baader-Meinhof terrorists, Austrian Markus Schleinzer sets himself the infinitely more difficult task of locating normality in the behaviour of a paedophile in his debut feature. Clearly inspired by the notorious cases of Wolfgang Priklopil and Josef Fritzl, this is a film fraught with dangers and many have expressed concern about its emotional impact on David Rauchenberger, who plays the 10 year-old victim of Michael Fuith's seemingly placid predator. However, having worked on over 60 projects as a casting director for the likes of Michael Haneke, Jessica Hautner and Ulrich Seidl, Schleinzer has sufficient experience of dealing with kids to avoid the risk of exploiting his young star. More problematic, however, is his refusal to explore the motivation of his villain and, thus, this supremely controlled and often compelling picture remains frustratingly superficial.
No one would suspect that 35 year-old Michael Fuith has a dreadful secret. Bespectacled, balding and utterly unremarkable in appearance and demeanour, he arrives back at his metal-shuttered suburban home and unpacks the shopping after parking in the garage adjoining his kitchen. He prepares a meal and sets the table for two and then pads down to the basement to unlock the heavy metal door that ensures 10 year-old David Rauchenberger remains an isolated prisoner.
Schleinzer is at pains to stress the mundanity of the pair's routine. They wash up together, watch television and even do jigsaws. But the tension in the silences betrays the simmering resentment that Rauchenberger confides to the letters he writes to the parents he can't quite believe abandoned him into the care of a stranger whose curt kindness is always compromised by his quietly insistent sexual demands. Apart from one embarrassing dinner encounter - when Fuith exposes himself and repeats the hilariously inappropriate line he heard the previous evening in a porn film - Schleinzer leaves the abuse to the audience's imagination. But the sordid reality pervades every scene, whether Fuith and Rauchenberger have a rare day out at a petting zoo, make preparations for Christmas or build a bunk bed in anticipation of the arrival of a new boy.
This last sequence takes on a chilling aspect when Fuith is shown prowling a go-karting centre for a suitable prey. Yet sister Ursula Strauss suspects nothing of his secret life when she meets him for coffee and accepts unquestioningly his assertion that he has a girlfriend in Germany. Similarly, at the insurance company where he works, he gets on well enough with colleagues like Gisella Salcher (whose uncle turns out to be one of his neighbours) and even earns a promotion. However, there is a forced levity at the office party Fuith throws in celebration and the atmosphere is equally strained during his skiing trip with mates Simon Jaritz and Florian Eisner, especially when Fuith gets invited back to barmaid Margot Vuga's room and he spends the next day avoiding everybody after mortifyingly failing to perform.
Despite being spared the nightly visitations during the Tirol interlude, Rauchenberger deeply resents being left alone and this sense of abandonment, combined with Fuith's failure to find him the promised playmate, prompts him to become increasingly truculent. Finally shattering the illusion of affection that he has allowed to linger, Schleinzer reveals the true nature of the relationship as Fuith laughs off the boy's pathetic attempts to fight him and this sudden revelation of cruelty presages the act of carelessness that results in the captor's downfall and shocking posthumous exposure.
Having refused to judge Fuith while he was perpetrating his unspeakable acts, Schleinzer can't resist lacing the funeral oration given by Catholic priest Hannes Benedetto Pircher with bitter irony. Moreover, he allows the air of suspense that he had previously striven to exclude to seep into the closing scenes, as mother Christine Kain and brother-in-law Victor Tremmel get ever closer to making an appalling discovery as they clear out the supposedly empty house.
The closing stages reinforce the brilliance of Katrin Huber and Gerhard Dohr's set design and Gerald Kerkletz's unobtrusive camerawork. But they also reveal the extent to which Schleinzer is content to employ the generic thriller tactics of manipulating characters and viewers rather than confronting the sociological and psychological issues that arise from the scenario. In presenting a portrait of a monster as an ordinary man, he skirts any assessment of Fuith's sexual personality. The wretched tryst with Vuga suggests he is attracted to women and they like him, but no hint is given of any childhood trauma or epiphanal moment that might explain why he would kidnap a child and treat him as a cross between a surrogate son and a sex slave.
Fuith's reaction to a television news item about missing children intimates that he knows he is doing wrong and fears both being caught and Rauchenberger discovering the truth about his deception. But Schleinzer delves no deeper. He even bypasses the evident pain that Fuith feels on confiscating Rauchenberger's latest letter home or on having to force himself upon the boy rather than be enthusiastically embraced. Yet, in circumventing such topics, he succeeds in coaxing the audience into speculating upon them and this ambiguity makes the performances of Fuith and Rauchenberge all the more potent and persuasive.
Argentinian director Pablo Trapero has often demonstrated a mastery of milieu and ambience in reinventing neo-realism in such empathetic working-class dramas as Crane World (1999), Familia Rodante (2004), Born and Bred (2006) and Lion's Den (2008). Now he has cast a noirish pall over Buenos Aires in Carancho, a gritty study of Argentina's growing traffic problem. However, despite a caption proclaiming that over 8000 people die in road accidents each year and a further 120,000 are injured, he fails to immerse the viewer in the desperate demi-monde inhabited by insurance agent Ricardo Darín and junior doctor Martina Gusman. Thus, while this makes for a satisfyingly complex and bleak thriller, it lacks the depth and trenchancy that has characterised Trapero's earlier work.
Working as an ambulance chaser until he can get his lawyer's licence back, Darín has misgivings about diverting the bulk of compensation payments away from the victim and into his boss's bank account. Thus, Gusman eventually gives into his persistent requests to go for a coffee, even though she profoundly disapproves of his trade. Much to her surprise, she discovers that Darín is both charming and compassionate and they begin a tentative romance.
However, when an elderly musician dies in a hit-and-run accident that Darín had arranged to help him pay off some debts, Gusman disowns him and becomes increasingly dependent on the drugs that she shoots up in order to cope with the traumas she witnesses during her interminable shifts. Determined to persuade Gusman that he is not exploiting his clients, Darín decides to help a family secure the full amount of its claim. However, his philanthropy exacerbates the tensions between rival insurers Carlos Weber and José Luis Arias and the lovers quickly find themselves caught in the crossfire.
Despite creating the oppressive chiaroscuro associated with classic noir, Julian Apezteguia's widescreen digital photography often feels as conventional as a storyline that becomes increasingly implausible as Darín and Gusman strive to kick against the system that has ensnared them. The performances are typically accomplished, with Darín's corrupted decency being matched by Gusman's probity. But the combustible finale, which sees the pair attempt to defraud Weber and Arias by stealing a cheque and delivering it directly to its intended recipients, belongs in a heist movie rather than a socio-political exposé. Consequently, this ends up feeling more like a slick, but manipulative genre picture than an authentic slice of life.
Given that the Russian presidential election takes place this weekend, the timing of the release of Cyril Tuschi's documentary Khodorkovsky could not be more pointed. A decade ago, the head of the Yukos petroleum company had little to fear from the former KGB officer then ensconced in the Kremlin. But, by openly challenging Vladimir Putin in 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky laid himself open to a vendetta that saw him given an eight-year sentence for tax evasion and subsequently stricken with an additional six years for stealing 350 million tons of his own oil. Opinion is divided among the talking heads in this fascinating study as to the precise reason for Khodorkovsky's seemingly sudden decision to antagonise such a dangerous opponent. But, while many reckon it has as much to do with macho posturing as politics, few can predict with any confidence how this grudge match will play out.
While studying chemistry at the Mendeleev Institute in Moscow, Khodorkovsky was an active member of the Komsomol promoting Communist ideology. However, in 1988, he launched the country's first private bank and, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, he seized the opportunity to acquire the nationalised oil industry, which was sold at a knockdown price of $300 million by Boris Yeltsin in a bid to prevent it falling into foreign hands. Such was Khodorkovsky's business acumen that Yukos was worth $6 billion dollars within a matter of months and he found himself rubbing shoulders with the new breed of oligarchs essentially running the newly democratised state.
Initially, Khodorskovsky maintained a low profile and eschewed the trappings that so many of his peers (and the gangsters who challenged them) flaunted in the face of ordinary citizens still waiting to experience the socio-economic benefits of freedom. However, in reneging on a promise to Putin to stay out of politics, Khodorkovsky made reprisal inevitable and he was arrested by the hooded security agents who burst into his aeroplane in October 2003. Following a show trial, he was dispatched to a labour camp outside Chita near the Siberian border with China, only to be moved to a facility close to the Finnish frontier after judges in Moscow after being found guilty of money laundering and oil theft.
Having long corresponded with Khodorkovsky, Tuschi was allowed to interview him briefly inside his bullet-proof cage in the capital courtroom. The encounter proved more symbolic than significant, however, as the German documentarist was guarded in his questioning and his interlocutor was understandably reluctant to speak freely. But this valedictory moment epitomises Tuschi's inability to elicit frank responses from any of his interviewees and his struggle to fathom the methods and motives of a man who stubbornly remains an enigma.
Making telling use of stylised, mostly monochrome computer line animation, Tuschi ably combines archive footage with intimate insights. Occasionally hogging the limelight in the manner of Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield, he has the sense to realise he is not the story and lets others do the talking. Among those he meets are Kodorkovsky's mother Marina, first wife Lena and oldest son Pavel (who is now in exile in the United States), as well as university friend Maxim Valetsky, early business associates Leonid Nevzlin and Mikhail Brudno and economics adviser Christian Michel, who variously recall how the rather nerdy, moustachio'd graduate forgot the Party zealotry of his literary hero Pavel Korchagin (from the Socialist Realist Nikolai Ostrovsky novel How the Steel Was Tempered) and indulged in nefarious practices while establishing the Manatep Bank.
However, Khodorkovsky soon learned the value of transparency in dealing with overseas partners. Moreover, as Irina Yashina and Alexander Osovtsov remember (the latter while feeding a hippopotamus, for some peculiar reason), he also recognised the importance of investing in the future through his Open Russia educational initiative. Former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, Yeltsin's privatisation supremo Anatoly Chubais, economics minister-turned-poet Evgeny Saburov and onetime Dmitry Medvedev aide Igor Yurdens all speak highly of his tact and talent. But society DJ Nina Kravets, student Anton Bominov and journalists Andrei Vasilyev and Ben Aris are less convinced and Tuschi's vox pops suggest how effective Putin's propaganda machine has been in spinning against him.
Ex-employees like lawyer Dmitry Gololobov and security chief Aleksei Kondaurov are baffled as to why Khodorkovsky opted against following so many of his peers into exile. But former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov and prominent opposition leader Ilya Yashin believe that he accepted prison as part of the rehabilitation process he needed to undergo to win back public trust. Thus, by presenting himself as a victim of human rights abuse, he will no longer seem to be part of the privileged elite, but a man of the people who can ride to rescue them from the consequences of Putin's second coming. It's a risky strategy, but Khodorkovsky has beaten the odds before and is clearly confident of doing so again, with even higher stakes.
Finally, Celine Dahnier recalls the golden age of the New York No Wave and the Cinema of Transgression in this hectic documentary, which is packed with clips and stellar talking heads making ostentatious claims about both the quality of the nano-budget underground films produced during the late 1970s and early 80s and their impact on the visual arts. Ann Magnuson, Deborah Harry, Fab 5 Freddy, Glenn O'Brien, James Chance, J.G. Thirlwell, John Lurie, John Waters, Kembra Pfahler, Lydia Lunch, Maripol, Patti Astor, Steve Buscemi and Thurston Moore are among those with opinions and memories to share. But, with a little less postulating and a bit more cultural context, this could have been the seminal history of the Super 8 revolution.
A sense of punk communality was key to the period's astonishing prolificity, as painters, musicians, actors, performance artists and opportunists picked up cameras and began shooting with scarcely any preparation, even less cash and often little or no talent. Yet the evident amateurism of most projects was somewhat masked by an enthusiasm and conviction that gave the movement based in the Lower East Side neighbourhood of Alphabet City a momentum that gradually led to the acquisition of a cult following and, eventually, some serious critical attention.
Emerging at a time when New York was approaching bankruptcy and the Reagan presidency was in the throes of shifting the entire country to the free market right, the Cinema of Transgression reflected the mood of the social, political and economic opposition. However, the pictures became increasingly graphic and this exploration of sex and violence incurred the wrath of the censors just as the gentrification of the rundown brownstones, drug abuse, AIDS and the drift of the chosen few into the `indie' mainstream began to take their toll. Consequently, No Wave blew itself out almost as soon as it had flickered into flame.
In addition to the seemingly ubiquitous shots of The Ramones, Patti Smith, et al on stage at CBGBs, Dahnier also includes some priceless images like Steve Buscemi break dancing and Debbie Harry wandering desolate Gotham streets. But the laudable inclusivity of the project precludes a proper analysis of the motives and methods of the better film-makers, while the sheer volume of extracts makes it difficult for the uninitiated to distinguish between them, let alone reach any worthwhile value judgements about works that variously set out to espouse radical politics, offer wry insights into life on the margins or simply shock.
For completists, the clip list reads: John Waters (Multiple Maniacs, 1970); Amos Poe (Unmade Beds, The Blank Generation, both 1976), The Foreigner, 1978); James Nares (Block; Pendulum; Ramp; Steel Rod; Studio Pendulum, all 1976; Suicide? No, Murder, 1977; Rome ’78, 1978; Waiting for the Wind, 1981); Vivienne Dick (She Had Her Gun All Ready; Guerillere Talks, both 1978; Beauty Becomes the Beast, 1979; Liberty's Booty, 1980); Beth B. and Scott B. (G-Man, 1978); Black Box, 1979; The Offenders, The Trap Door, both 1980; Vortex, 1982); Eric Mitchell (Kidnapped, 1978; Underground USA, 1980; The Way It Is, 1985); John Lurie (Hell Is You; Men in Orbit, both 1979); Manuel Delanda (Ism Ism, 1979; Judgment Day, 1983); Michael McClard (Alien Portrait; Contortions, both 1979); Nick Zedd (They Eat Scum, 1979; The Bogus Man, 1980; The Wild World of Lydia Lunch; Geek Maggott Bingo, both 1983; Go to Hell; Kiss Me Goodbye, both 1986; Police State, 1987; War Is Menstrual Envy, 1992; Why Do You Exist?, 1998; Ecstasy in Entropy, 1999); Charlie Ahearn (The Deadly Art of Survival, 1979; Wild Style, 1983); Jim Jarmusch (Permanent Vacation, 1980; Stranger Than Paradise, 1984); Anders Grafstrom (The Long Island Four, 1980); Bette Gordon (Empty Suitcases, 1980; Variety, 1983); Becky Johnston (Sleepless Nights, 1981); Edo Bertoglio (Downtown 81, 1981); Michael Holman (Catch a Beat, 1981; Vincent Gallo As Flying Christ; Pesceador; Stilwend); Sarah Driver (You Are Not I, 1981; Sleepwalk, 1986); Susan Seidelman (Smithereens, 1982); Tessa Hughes-Freeland (Baby Doll, 1982; Nymphomania, 1994); Lizzie Borden (Born in Flames, 1983); Richard Kern (You Killed Me First; Stray Dogs; Submit to Me Now; The Right Side of My Brain; I Hate You Now, all 1985; Fingered; Death Valley 69; Goodbye 42nd Street, all 1986; The Evil Cameraman; X Is Y, both 1990; The Sewing Circle, 1992; My Nightmare, 1993); Kembra Pfahler (Cornella: The Story of a Burning Bush, 1985); Michael Oblowitz (King Blank, 1985); Cassandra Stark (Wrecked on Cannibal Island, 1986; We Are Not to Blame, 1989; Parades of Crazy; Death of an Arabian Woman) and Tommy Turner (Rat Trap, 1986, with Tessa Hughes-Freeland; Where Evil Dwells, 1986, with David Wojnarowicz).
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