REVIEW — Silent Youth (2012)

FilmJuice have my review of Diemo Kemmesies’ almost silent film Silent Youth.

It would have been easy for Silent Youth to come across as either a dry technical exercise or an incomplete proof of concept; Little more than seventy minutes-long, the film is best understood as an exploration of how a romance might evolve in the absence of spoken cues. However, while that description may invoke memories of weird experimental works like Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence, Diemo Kammesies’ first film is actually a really quite affective and effective love story involving two young men who are too terrified to speak about what they feel, let alone who they are.

Silent Youth is a beautifully shot film that positively revels in its long silences. However, despite shifting from one pregnant pause to another, the film never feels repetitive as each of the silences reflects a different mood and another stage in the boys’ burgeoning relationship. Sometimes the silence is framed with sunlight and uncut grass in a way that evokes warmth and lust, other times the silence finds Kirill leaning back into a darkened corner as a means of capturing a momentary panic over the decision to have sex with a man. Despite this being his first feature film, Diemo Kemmesies’ direction is subtle but assured and the performances he coaxes from his actors are nothing short of mesmerising.

My review points out that Silent Youth can be seen as an art house film that makes use of storytelling techniques developed in the era of silent film but — on a more visceral level — this is a film about living in the shadow of homophobic violence and finding a way to reveal your feelings to another person without getting your head kicked in. Kemmesies establishes this fear of homophobic violence quite early on when Marlo’s love interest talks about being stripped naked and beaten up during a visit to Russia but while that fear is never again alluded to, it does explain why Marlo’s lover is definitely the more cautious of the two.

The fact that I didn’t initially pick up on this subtext says something about the lightness of Kemmesies’ touch but it also says quite a lot about yours truly: I can completely understand being reluctant to express one’s interest in another person for fear of being rejected and spoiling a potentially rewarding friendship but fear of being physically attacked either for expressing an interest or rejecting one is definitely outside of my lived experience. I guess this would be one of those ‘check your privilege’ moments then…

Into the Abyss (2011) – The Traumafare State

When has Werner Herzog ever made a film that couldn’t be summarised as a journey into the abyss? Early feature films such as Even Dwarfs Started Small and Aguirre, the Wrath of God seem to revel in the existential savagery of the world while more recent documentaries such as Grizzly Man and Happy People: A Year in the Taiga serve as reminders that the world has little time for the collection of bourgeois conceits that we dare to call a civilisation. The question is never whether Herzog will turn his film into a meditation on the savagery of the world, but which tone he will select as a means of approaching it:

Sometimes (as with Encounters at the End of the World and The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) he is a whimsical fantasist who recognises that silliness is the only possible response to a world so cold and drenched with blood.

Sometimes (as with Fitzcarraldo and Little Dieter Needs to Fly) Herzog is a humanist who marvels at our human capacity to overcome the savage injustices of life.

Sometimes (as with Nosferatu the Vampyre and Aguirre) he is filled with bitterness and cynicism by nature’s ability to dissolve humanity’s finest dreams.

If becoming a cinematic auteur requires a director to develop a recognisable sensibility and carry it with them from project to project then Werner Herzog must be considered one of the most prolific and versatile auteurs in cinematic history. Regardless of whether he is producing documentaries or feature-length narrative films, Herzog is one of the brightest jewels in the crown of world cinema but he is also starting to get on.

Back in the early 2000s, a string of moderately successful films provided the veteran director with a level of visibility that had long since been denied him. Thrust into the spotlight and transformed into a celebrity, Herzog made the most of it by adopting the engagingly self-parodic persona of an austere German filmmaker who muses on the savagery of the world with his tongue planted squarely in his cheek. Long-time fans would not have been surprised by this development as Herzog has always had a fondness for deadpan satire and self-mythologising (the documentary My Best Fiend is at least as full of made up crap about Herzog as it is of stuff about Klaus Kinski). The problem with this moment of visibility is that while it evidently made it much easier for Herzog to secure funding on his next project, it also encouraged him to remain Herzog the whimsical fantasist who undercut his meditations on death and destruction with talk of depressed penguins and mutated crocodiles. Given that Herzog was now reaching 70 and more visible than ever, I was concerned that the whimsical Herzog might become a permanent fixture. Would the bitter and humane Herzogs ever return or would it be nothing but dancing souls and iguanas on the coffee table until the end? Clearly, I needn’t have worried as Into the Abyss is a documentary that shows us an entirely new Werner: Herzog the humane socialist.

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REVIEW – Die Nibelungen (1924)

FilmJuice have my review of Masters of Cinema’s re-release of Fritz Lang’s fantasy epic Die Nibelungen.

Originally released in two halves as Die Nibelungen: Siegfried and Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilde’s Rache, the film spend five hours exploring the tension between the passions that drive society onwards and the rules developed to govern that society’s violent impulses and channel them into more productive pursuits such as the construction of a modern state governed by enlightened individuals. The film begins with a great hero making his way to what he assumes to be a shining city on a hill… a beacon of medieval civilisation in an ocean of blackness and savagery.  Upon arriving at the legendary city of Burgundy, the hero falls in love with the king’s sister but in order to gain the permission to marry Kriemhild, Siegfried must trick the hero Brunhild into marrying cowardly king Gunther. Brunhild eventually discovers the ploy and demands that Gunther redeem herself by killing Siegfried. Weak and afraid, Gunther convinces his chief knight to murder Sigfried prompting his sister Kriemhild to present him with an ultimatum: Either Gunther betrays his chief knight and does justice to Kriemhild or he remains loyal to his knight and ignores the injustice that keeps him on the throne.

Die Nibelungen is essentially the story of an immoral oyster pearl.  Though Gunther is the king of a great country his desire for the hero Brunhild prompts him into doing something immoral. Trapped in a lie, Gunther then adds to his woes by first murdering his friend and then turning his back on his beautiful sister who promptly runs off and marries the lord of the Huns in an effort to force her brother to do her justice. The more Gunther denies wrong-doing, the greater the injustice grows and the greater the injustice grows, the more transparently immoral the world becomes:

It is easy to see why both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebels claimed Die Nibelungen as one of their favourite films. Aside from the Germanic origins of the Nibelungen stories, Lang also draws heavily upon the idea that a group of blond-haired heroes might emerge from the common muck of humanity and, through sheer force of character, build a shining civilisation on a hill. Marinated in the same myths of national exceptionalism that informed the iconography of the Third Reich, Lang’s film presents the king of the Dwarves as a treacherous Jew and the emotional energies unleashed by Kriemhild at the end of the film as a tide of dark-skinned savages from the East. This is not just a film that is of its time, this is a film that perfectly captures a time when a society’s capacity to regulate its own behaviour can no longer cope with the violent forces at work in the culture at large. By refusing to constrain his feelings of lust for Brunhild, Gunther is forced to trick her into marriage, by refusing to discuss or atone for his dishonest seduction of Brunhild, Gunther is forced to murder his friend, by refusing to acknowledge that he had his friend murdered, Gunther is forced to go to war with his sister and by attempting to justify his actions through an appeal to loyalty, Gunther undermines the entire moral infrastructure of his society… there are no rules, there are no principles, there are no cities on the hill… there is only violence, lust, madness and death.

Lang’s Burgundian society reflects a German political culture that was finding it increasingly difficult to deal with intense feelings of anger and desire. Pickled in war resentment and drunk on a growing sense of historical self-importance, German culture burst its banks and drowned Europe in blood while German political elites either worked the crowd or went with the flow. Die Nibelungen‘s political elites use words like ‘honour’ and ‘loyalty’ but these words become increasingly meaningless as the film progresses.  Just as American political elites use words like ‘freedom’ and ‘patriotism’ to justify violence and repression, King Gunther uses the word ‘loyalty’ to justify the betrayal and murder of his brother-in-law. By distorting shared values in an effort to justify their own selfish desires, the royals of Die Nibelungen paint themselves into a political corner: fully aware that their war will lead to nothing but destruction, they can neither compromise nor make peace as the words required to broker a cease-fire have been rendered completely meaningless.

REVIEW: Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis (1984)

FilmJuice have my review of Giorgio Moroder’s eighties remix of Fritz Lang’s immortal Metropolis.

Lang’s Metropolis is a science fiction fairy tale dealing in class warfare, economic collapse and the power of compromise and understanding to deliver a world that is at the very least tolerable to all. Grounded in the cinematic techniques developed by German Expressionism to increase the bandwidth of silent film and unlock new depths of emotional complexity, the film is two and a half hours of directorial brilliance. However, though the original cut of the film has now been recovered, there were decades during which people believed it would never be seen again. Given that Metropolis is not only a beautiful but also an intensely important film, it was perhaps unavoidable that attempts to restore it would stir up strong feelings. In fact, the debate over what should be done with the Metropolis fragments rapidly coalesced into a bitter confrontation between those who wanted the original film left as it was and those who wanted the meddle with the footage in the hopes of recapturing some dim afterglow of Lang’s genius. Giorgio Moroder’s Metropolis is not only the best known and most interventionist of the alternate edits of Metropolis, it was also the most widely seen version of the film as the ‘hip’ scoring by eighties pop stars combined with the short running time ensured that copies of the film flew in and out of video rental stores throughout the eighties and nineties. Now that the original cut of the film has been recovered, it is tempting to simply consign Moroder’s edit to the bin and move on but this cut has historical merit on its own.

Moroder’s Metropolis is a short and punchy affair that feels very much like an extended trailer for original version of the film. Moroder solves the narrative problems of the various re-cuts by stripping out much of the dialogue and drama in order to focus upon the big cinematic set pieces and emotional moments. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this results in a film that bubbles with the same hysterical energy and visual spectacle as the Michael Bay Transformers movies. However, rather than leaving his characters to scream and flail about like Shia LaBoeuf, Moroder attempts to fill in the emotional gaps by scoring the film with a series of somewhat heavy-handed eighties power ballads performed by the likes of Bonnie Tyler, Freddy Mercury and Pat Benatar. Moroder also colourises the film in an attempt to convey changes of mood which, though obvious from the context of Lang’s longer film, struggle to emerge from the mangled cinematic vocabulary of the truncated versions.

Watching this film, I couldn’t help but wonder what other alternate edits of classic films are out there… the film is being re-released today by Masters of Cinema in a limited edition steel shell thingy. Release of the standard edition is coming later this year according to the Brazilian river place.

REVIEW – Chiko (2008)

Videovista have my review of Ozgur Yildirim’s Chiko, a neat little German crime drama set amongst the Turkish immigrant population.

The film starts well by delving into the same un-glamorous vein of social realism as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy but despite providing some interesting insights into the lives of second-generation Turkish immigrants in modern Germany, the film is let down by a histrionic and entirely unconvincing third act that lapses into poorly written melodrama.

10 Works of German Expressionism

Videovista have my (rather long) piece on German Expressionist film entitled Apocalyptic Adolescence.

The piece gives a list of eight particularly noteworthy works of Expressionist cinema and ends with two works which, though not Expressionistic, seem like logical reactions against the trend.  One of the challenges of writing this piece was the slow realisation that the term “German Expressionism” is now effectively meaningless.  So I attempted to keep track not only of how the term changed, but also to look at all of these films through a rather definite understanding of what it meant to be a part of the Expressionist movement.

The list includes : The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Student of Prague, The Golem, From Morn to Midnight, Genuine : A Tale of a Vampire, Waxworks, Nosferatu, Metropolis, The Last Laugh and Pandora’s Box.

REVIEW – The Finances of the Grand Duke (1924)

Videovista has my review of Die Finanzen Des Grossherzogs.  A silent black and white comedy made during the years of the Weimar Republic and directed by F. W. Murnau, the director who brought us such classics as Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924) and Faust (1926).

It’s being sold as part of a Masters of Cinema set along with his proto-psychological thriller Phantom (1922) and while the film itself is something of a lightweight romp, I nonetheless found it quite an enjoyable one.