Toni Erdmann (2016)

In Toni Erdmann, a combination of daddy issues, Bulgarian masks and false teeth creates a hilarious story about a father and daughter struggling to make a connection.

toni-erdmannGermany/Austria
4.5*

Director:
Maren Ade

Screenwriter:
Maren Ade

Director of Photography:
Patrick Orth

Running time: 160 minutes

Toni Erdmann is in fact Wilfried Conradi, an elderly German man who tries to reconnect with his high-strung consultant daughter when his beloved dog and longtime companion, Willi, passes away. But don’t let this description put you off because this is one of the funniest films you are ever likely to see.

A lot of the humour has to do with awkwardness, and our laughter is as much the result of nervousness on our part as the expression of wide-eyed astonishment that the actors can stay unfazed by the unexpected drama around them.

Wilfried (Peter Simonischek) is a primary school music teacher who clearly has never given up being a child himself. The opening scene sets the tone perfectly, as a delivery man rings the doorbell to find Wilfried refusing to accept the delivery because his brother, “Toni”, to whom the package is addressed, has just been released from prison following a conviction for sending mail bombs. Moments later, Toni, with buckteeth and a very bad hairpiece, arrives to sign for the package, whose content we get to see only a few scenes later.

In the meantime, the stage is set for what would otherwise be a dour domestic drama examining the difficulty of reconnecting with one’s child as an adult. The child, in this case, is the 30-something Ines (Sandra Hüller), who is doing consulting work for an oil company in Bucharest and spends every moment of her birthday party talking (or pretending to talk) on the phone with business clients. She clearly has little patience for her the antics of her father, who arrives at the party made up to look like a zombie.

But then, something very mundane happens, and it changes everything. In an underplayed but devastating ellipsis, Wilfried’s dog dies in the middle of the night. The following morning, he ups and flies off to Bucharest, because besides him knowing next to nothing about Ines’s life, he now appreciates that this relationship should be cherished as long as they are both around to do so. The problem, admittedly, is that his daughter has neither the time nor the inclination nor, frankly, the social experience to extend a helping hand to her father and comfort him during this time of crisis.

And yet, from the moment he bursts into her carefully preserved house of cards in Bucharest, even though they are basically strangers to each other, and Wilfried’s presence is always on the verge of upending a fragile business deal, they cannot (and we certainly don’t want them to) let go of each other. Ines is so tense she looks like she is always about to have a nosebleed, and yet father, the ultimate foil, sits down on whoopee cushions in front of her colleagues and tells a major client he has decided to hire someone to play his daughter at home because Ines never visits.

Toni is an alter ago, but we get to know him much better than we do Wilfried, and that is the genius behind the film and behind Wilfried’s approach to Ines: These two may be father and daughter, but for whatever reason there is no way for them to relate to each other in the present, and therefore, the best alternative is for them to relate to each other as Toni and Ines. The resulting chemistry, with all its attendant reactions, is volatile but produces a combination so beautiful and rare we might as well be dealing with successful alchemy.

While some may balk at the running time, there is little drag, except for one extended car-bound conversation between Ines and her colleagues that could have been trimmed significantly. Whatever mystery Toni Erdmann has is tied to our awareness – and eventually, our giddy expectation – that the man with the bad wig on his head and the false teeth in his mouth may reappear at any moment.

All of a sudden, in the film’s final act, all the random parts suddenly unify in two unexpectedly brilliant scenes. The first is a musical number; the second, which involves a Bulgarian mask of sorts, flips the script with a scene that had the entire audience in stitches for a full uninterrupted five-minute stretch. Even more impressive is that this latter scene is punctuated by a stunningly poignant, emotionally devastating and indisputably unique catharsis.

The film may be on the long side, but its message is clear: Life is short, so make the most of it, because laugh and cherishing those close to us is a much better use of our time than pretending to be on a phone call to avoid speaking to those who love us and around whom we can be ourselves.

Viewed at the Be2Can 2016 Film Festival.

Oh Boy (2012)

Black-and-white jewel of a movie about the magic that can be found on a journey as mundane as seeking a cup of coffee lights up the screen with subtlety and emotional intelligence.

oh-boyGermany
4*

Director:
Jan Ole Gerster

Screenwriter:
Jan Ole Gerster

Director of Photography:
Philipp Kirsamer

Running time: 85 minutes

Alternate title: A Coffee in Berlin

Magic can happen, even in the most tedious of circumstances, even over a single day, and luckily director Jan Ole Gerster was there to capture it. The début film of this German director, Oh Boy, is a black-and-white work of art that vaguely calls to mind Woody Allen’s Manhattan but without the core of self-doubt that is so fundamental to the U.S. filmmaker’s oeuvre. It tells the story of a young man mired in indecision and passivity but into whose life the most startling and arbitrary but also incredibly evocative characters fall out of nowhere, and the director’s fine sense for subtle comedic timing is simply gorgeous.

Our man is Niko (Tom Schilling), who abandoned his law studies at the university two years ago and has had a spot of trouble with alcohol. His absent father, whom he sees once in a blue moon, is unwittingly sponsoring this life in stasis to the tune of 1,000 euros a month, but on the day we meet and spend with Niko, the ATM swallows his card, and his father informs him this is where he has to get off the gravy train.

Oh Boy is filled with moments that make us smile, even laugh, with unexpected humour. Niko goes to a film set with one of his best friends, Matze, to visit an acquaintance who is playing a Nazi soldier. The actor’s passion for his role is affecting but awkward, and we don’t quite know whether to laugh with or feel for him, but when Niko leaves the set and lights a cigarette with two actors, we briefly notice the costumes they are wearing: The one has a swastika on his arm, the other has the star of David over his heart. It is a moment of visual brilliance that is not held for effect but instead immediately lightens the mood after the heavy emotion of the previous scene.

One gets a clear impression that Gerster has put himself in the shoes of his audience. His images are beautiful, his characters are sometimes pathetic but always intriguing, and he often catches us by surprise with moments of unmistakable beauty, like the sequence of shots in which we see Berlin at a standstill. This is no mere visual flourish, although even if it were, it would be striking enough, but an important part of the narrative.

Another scene that both endears Niko to us and demonstrates how it is possible for us to be affected by the utterly mundane is the one between him and an elderly lady who speaks little but shares a moment of common understanding with him. When they hug at the end of the scene, having said very little but clearly having grown closer over the course of a few minutes, the hairs on our neck stand on end.

Because he is such a slouch (when, in the opening scene, he realises he is late for a meeting, he stays put for a moment to finish a glass of water), Niko should be much more objectionable. But perhaps we care about him because he seems lost, and we like him because the people around him are such idiots: His new neighbour brings him pretty disgusting meatballs and has a nervous breakdown in his apartment; Matze considers himself a great actor but his refusal to accept most parts means few people now take him seriously; and Julianka, a former school mate who used to be fat is now an actress who wants to make up for everything she missed out on at school.

There is a clear thread that runs through the film, connecting the various episodes of Niko’s day and night: coffee. He struggles to find a cup of coffee that is not too expensive, not too small, but just right, and there are many different reasons, both visual and rhetorical, why his struggle is a source of comedy for the viewer. By the time we reach the final shot, it becomes clear what the director’s motivation was for including this sequence of events, and in fact, the film’s title in some markets is A Coffee in Berlin.

Gerster is a weaver of dreams in black and white, and a master of playing with our emotions by deploying characters and situations that seem slightly unreal but never unrealistic or contrived, and Oh Boy is a breathtaking first feature.

Viewed at the Festroia International Film Festival 2014

Heil (2015)

Nazi satire is heavy on the jokes but makes no serious effort to convey coherent message except to mock those seeking power.

heil-bruggemannGermany
3*

Director:
Dietrich Brüggemann

Screenwriter:
Dietrich Brüggemann

Director of Photography:
Alexander Sass

Running time: 100 minutes

Hitler seems to be all the rage recently, and not just because of the recent celebrations marking 70 years since the end of World War II. What makes the former Führer’s comical resurgence all the more interesting is that it originates in Germany, a country that has been ashamed of its Nazi past to the point that Mein Kampf is banned (copyright is held by the government until it expires in 2016), and any display of the Nazi salute is prohibited.

In the opening credits sequence of his latest film, Heil, the playful German director Dietrich Brüggemann intercuts the Nazi salute with Angela Merkel raising her hand to take the oath of office. Despite the provocative title, Hitler himself does not appear in the film, but the scourge of neo-Nazism is addressed in a very light-hearted way that basically makes caricatures out of any individuals with far-right tendencies.

The literary hit from a few years ago, Look Who’s Back, took a similar tack by having Adolf Hitler wake up from a coma in the present and work his way back into the public consciousness. One of the highlights of the book is a meeting between the principled, highly disciplined former leader of the Reich and a far-right party official who pretends to be in favour of Hitler’s policies but is only a few marbles away from being illiterate.

While it is debatable whether comedic simplification is the best approach to tackle this admittedly toxic subject, the issue has been topical for some time, and with the current emphasis across Europe on immigration, at least with regard to non-European or non-Western citizens, national identity is worth considerable discussion.

However, that is all far from the mind of Brüggemann, who plays up the sensationalism of Nazism in the opening minutes before he settles into a slapstick narrative that is always fun and has a booming soundtrack that pretends to propel the action forward even when little of note is happening.

The plot revolves around Sebastian Klein (Jerry Hoffmann), a handsome young Afro-German intellectual who regularly makes an appearance on the speaking circuit following the publication of his book, The Coffee-Stained Nation. Klein is about to become a father, but his (white) girlfriend and mother-to-be of his child, Nina (Liv Lisa Fries), still harbours fears he would break up with her and move back to his ex, Stella Gustafsson. When Klein is hit on the head, abducted by neo-Nazis, branded with a swastika on his forehead and turned into a zombie, the film enters the world of unbridled comedy that makes one or two points about how weak the characters on the anti-immigrant side really are.

Meanwhile, the not-quite-German-named Sven Stanislawski (Benno Fürmann), an ambitious but incompetent leader of a neo-Nazi cell, wants to impress his girlfriend by staging a false-flag operation that would lead to the invasion of Poland. However, he has his work cut out for him as at least two in his gang are informants, albeit with very little grey matter between them. In the opening scene, one of them, Johnny (Jacob Matschenz), struggles to write “White Power” correctly, and this emphasis on the stupidity of the neo-Nazis is a running joke in the film.

There is no question that Brüggemann’s gamble pays off, as his satirical take on Nazism – and the potential (or not) of a hate group to take up the mantle of the Führer once more – is uproarious and seemingly informed even though it is in fact little more serious than your average film coming out of Hollywood. Brüggemann seems to lose his nerve to address deep-rooted problems of integration in German society almost immediately after his opening credits, and while some of his comedy is rooted in (tragic) reality, as when we are reminded how much easier it is to get a gun in the United States than in Germany, most of it is purely for the sake of a quick laugh.

The most serious indictment of politics today comes in the form of a powerful song that accompanies the end credits. Performed by Adam Angst, the track “Splitter von Granaten” throws firebombs in the direction of Obama, the NSA and the German chancellor before this golden line is uttered: “Putin runs through woods and kills bears for pleasure and gives the green light to beat up homosexuals.” Heil briefly reminds us that while it is possible to be a (brainwashed) black Nazi, being gay is an unpardonable offense in certain circles; however, the only time a connection, tenuous though it may be, between the nationalist figures of Putin and Hitler is made is during the end credits, which appears to be another missed opportunity.

Speaking truth to power is not exactly what Heil is going for, and the film turns out to be infinitely less political than the viewer would hope for. But if you are looking for a comedy tinged here and there with an astute observation on what miserable creatures the neo-Nazis are, and how they should be mocked instead of feared, look no further.

Viewed at the 2015 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Schmitke (2015)

Début filmmaker’s surreal mystery set in the Czech countryside is a baffling take on finding identity.

schmitkeCzech Republic/Germany
3.5*

Director:
Štěpán Altrichter

Screenwriters:
Jan Fusek

Tomáš Končinský
Štěpán Altrichter
Director of Photography:
Cristian Pirjol

Running time: 95 minutes

Something is a little off in the German-language Schmitke, which opens in Berlin – where there is much talk of a “Bear-Man” who has been discovered in the wild – and closes deep in the forests of the former Sudetenland, on the Czech side of the border with Germany. Right at the beginning, when we first meet the title character, a middle-aged, unsmiling engineer (Peter Kurth) working for Deutsche Windenergie, we notice this German company has English-language posters on which the word “engineers” is misspelled. It is a small point, but if you notice it, you will immediately recognise that the world of the film is deliberately warped and confused, and things quickly get even weirder.

Julius Schmitke’s daughter arrives out of the blue and (literally) sets up camp inside his house, adding a statue of Buddha to his furnishings and trying to convince him to reconsider his nondescript existence. At work, his boss decides to send him and his loudmouth assistant, Thomas (Johann Jürgens), to the Ore Mountains to fix a broken wind turbine, and once the two arrive in the backwoods of civilisation, where the fog hangs thick and the forest almost becomes a character, everything they knew is turned upside down.

Schmitke is unconventional and uncategorisable, striving simultaneously to be a gentle contemplation of the mysteries of nature and a madcap absurdist thriller. Directed by the young Czech filmmaker Štěpán Altrichter, it is impossible to ever get a firm grip on the events that, as revealed during the final credits, may all just be a big dream.

The opening scenes at the energy company in Berlin have moments reminiscent of Roy Andersson’s work, especially when a crowd of people, expressionless and motionless, intently focuses on the only object in the room that is in motion. For the most part, Kurth’s imperturbable, deadpan performance is very effective, as it counters the actions of others in unpredictable ways. But the major plot point driving the narrative forward – the sudden and unexplained disappearance of Thomas – gets lost in the thick, mysterious atmosphere that Altrichter so painstakingly constructs.

With the exception of Julie (Helena Dvořáková), who runs a fancy hotel on a hilltop, it is impossible to describe anyone in the film as devoid of eccentricity, and the director emphasises the peculiarities of the Czech rural population in particular with sly digs at their language (Julie’s surname is the unpronouncable Řeřichová, the town is Chřmelava) and customs (upon arriving in the tiny town, Thomas proclaims they have travelled back in time; and in the bar, a deadly silence fills the room when Schmitke asks for tea instead of beer).

The style of the film may perhaps be best described as a kind of provincial surrealism mixed with poetic absurdism that leads to scenes such as a GPS system breaking down by changing its mind (“turn right… no… turn left…”) and a wind turbine that seemingly stops and starts just to provoke and confound the rational Schmitke.

Schmitke is no Homo Faber, but in the end, he does show some potential for having a fuller appreciation of the inexplicable. It is just a shame that the film itself nearly collapses in the process. It switches gears too rapidly from broad comedy to observational minimalism, and especially the second half of the film feels like a slow-motion implosion that is only flimsily sustained by the comical sounds of the Hammond organ on the soundtrack and the screeching sounds of the wind turbine struggling to rotate its blades.

Some of the film’s most intelligent details are its small moments of humour, like when Schmitke and Thomas get keys to rooms ‘1’ and ‘3’, clearly signalling impending misfortune, or the unexpected words of wisdom of an old lady at the bar, or the subtle repetition of incidents suggesting we may either be seeing different shades of the same event or people running on a hamster wheel.

There are few answers – even the questions are in short supply – and this lack of concrete information will frustrate many a viewer looking for a sturdy narrative backbone.

Unfortunately, the abundance of shots of the forest and the director’s unwillingness to make language more of an issue (everybody in this Czech hamlet can apparently speak almost perfect German, which leads to absolutely no discomfort, ever) hurt the audience’s involvement in this film that should have been much shorter than its 100-minute running time. Also, a shot in which Schmitke walks off-screen through heavy fog in a fixed long shot could have been utilised much more effectively, for example, by having him re-enter from the other side, at the same or at another location.

Schmitke is an experimental but quirky take on finding oneself. It is not always successful at keeping us engaged, and its second act is unnecessarily slow, but the rich soundtrack and unflappable performance of the lead actor will make this an interesting addition to any festival lineup.

Viewed at the 22nd International Film Festival Prague (Febiofest)

Citizenfour (2014)

Chilling documentary about maligned whistleblower contrasts his consistent belief in privacy, transparency with government’s wild, dishonest flip-flopping.

citizenfourUSA/Germany
4.5*

Director:
Laura Poitras

Edited by:
Mathilde Bonnefoy

Directors of Photography:
Kirsten Johnson

Trevor Paglen
Katy Scoggin

Running time: 115 minutes

One of the biggest disappointments of the Obama presidency has been that while the president has distinguished himself by seemingly approaching questions of national security with greater circumspection, or seriousness, than his predecessor, he has often arrived at the same conclusions and committed similar actions that have eroded public trust because of the seemingly sweeping power of the executive.

This administration, which has billed itself as the most transparent in history, has been equally opaque to both the press and the public, and those who criticise the government’s operations are labelled as traitors and their patriotism questioned, not only by those who did so in support of the previous administration but also by many in the current one.

Edward Snowden is not the first government whistleblower during the Obama years, but his case has certainly generated the most publicity because of the almost unimaginable reach his leaks have exposed to the public. Halfway through Laura Poitras’ chilling documentary Citizenfour, when we see President Obama for the first time, saying “I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot”, his words convey the exact opposite of what he represented when he ran for office, and he seems out of touch with reality, having become a prisoner to the greedy national security apparatus.

The title of the film refers to the name by which Snowden introduced himself when he first made contact with Poitras online. Poitras is no stranger to the government’s heavy-handedness, as U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have interrogated her on multiple occasions since the 2006 release of her My Country, My Country, which looked at life in Iraq after the U.S. forces invaded and occupied the country in 2003.

She shot most of Citizenfour during that exciting time in the summer of 2013 when the world did not yet know who had leaked the abundant treasure trove of National Security Agency (NSA) documents that indicated relentless, government-sanctioned spying on almost everyone. It suddenly seemed like this leak would finally cast light on the U.S. government’s invasion of privacy. For a while, that is what happened, but because the specter of terrorism still hangs over and propels every arguments from the intelligence community more than a decade after their failure to prevent the events of Sept. 11, 2001, many people at all levels of society and government are hesitant to call out the invasive nature of surveillance.

Just like those who questioned the United States–led invasion of Iraq were labelled anti-American, Snowden and those who support his selective leaks about the state’s reach into everyone’s electronic footprint are now said to be friends with America’s enemies. Although they will deny it, the people who flippantly make the latter argument seem to think that the government is their friend, when in fact it has become their enemy. Ironically, it is taking away U.S. and non-U.S. citizens’ rights while pretending to do so for their own good.

Half of the film – exactly one hour – takes place in Hong Kong, most of it inside Snowden’s room at the Mira Hotel, whither he had invited Poitras and Rio de Janeiro–based journalist Glenn Greenwald, as well as The Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill. While these four people were holed up in that tiny room, Snowden’s life is on the verge of going up in flames, a fact underscored when he learns government agents have paid a visit to his girlfriend back home, even though his identity as the whistleblower was still undisclosed.

He provides documents, charts and other presentations to the journalists and helps them sift through the information that at times is almost too stunning to contemplate. Recognising the sheer scale of the revelations, Snowden confirms this is as bad as it seems. “It’s not science fiction; this is happening right now.”

This central part covers brief explanations of the meanings of multiple acronyms or other code names, such as Prism, Tempora and XKeyscore, with enough disclosure about profound overreach to keep on giving the audience goosebumps for the entire duration. This section is bookended by 20 minutes to set the stage and 40 minutes to follow the consequences of the revelations, including the infamous detention of Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, at Heathrow Airport in August 2013. It is an emotional moment for the audience when Miranda arrives back in Rio de Janeiro, because the feeling of despair is palpable and truly overwhelming.

What follows Greenwald’s and MacAskill’s initial articles is a media frenzy and a clampdown on Snowden’s freedom, including the U.S. Department of State’s decision to revoke his passport, which left him in the no man’s land of one of Moscow’s international airports. We do not get to see this part of the journey, because Poitras says her own security was compromised by the leaks, and she spent much of the next year in Berlin to edit her footage.

However, one scene in Brazil is surprisingly moving and concerns a speech by Greenwald at a senate hearing to investigate NSA spying on Brazilian citizens. While Greenwald lays out some of the surveillance programs and their significance, a few people in the audience hold up paper printouts of Edward Snowden’s face. This kind of solidarity with a man on the run for illuminating the dirty truth is admirable and fortunately is free of the political shading it would be subjected to if it occurred in the United States (at the very least, the silent protesters would likely be put on a watch list immediately, curtailing their freedom of travel).

The film ends with a few big moments, but because the story is so current and still developing, it is necessarily incomplete. For now, Snowden still lives in Russia as a refugee. The film contains a single scene with WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange, who is also a refugee, currently in hiding inside the Embassy of Ecuador in London, but while we see him aware of Snowden’s flight from Hong Kong to Moscow, it is unfortunate that we get very little other information about his involvement in the affair.

The final scene strongly hints at the knowledge of wrongdoing that time and again goes all the way to the top of the U.S. executive branch. Even just going by the Snowden documents, it seems to be clear that Obama has utterly failed to live up to the promise he made in a campaign speech in 2007, when he said, “I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom. That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens, no more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime, no more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war, no more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient.”

Citizenfour is an absolutely riveting and utterly compelling documentary that provides details about the U.S. and UK surveillance industries that only the most dedicated reader of The Guardian may have been familiar with. Snowden, dressed in a white T-shirt as he patiently explains the complex ways in which the NSA and its partners ignore people’s right to privacy, often smiles and projects a warm, friendly demeanour, far from the egomaniacal vision of self-righteousness many in government have suggested. He is calm, direct and very articulate; he also clearly measures his words when he speaks and is reluctant to become “the story”, even though he knows it is probably inevitable.

The only person less interested than Snowden in being the focus of the media spotlight is Poitras, who never appears on camera and whose voiceover is delivered dispassionately, because the information is powerful enough and does not require any emphasis for effect. Compare this approach with the bombast and the saturated onscreen presence of Michael Moore in his films, and the narcissism of the latter becomes difficult to ignore.

It is impossible to estimate what the importance of this material will be 10 or 20 years from now, and Snowden’s future (his current residence permit is valid until 2017) remains as opaque as his own movements. Poitras’ unique access to her subject has shown us the relatable man behind the revelations whom many call a traitor even though he came forward armed with the truth, while they ignore those who lied and were caught red-handed, like James Clapper and Keith Alexander, because they were allegedly doing this to protect the country. The battle for the truth and for the recognition of Snowden’s trailblazing activities continues, but Poitras’ film has gone a long way towards rightfully rehabilitating the image of one of the 21st century’s most consequential freedom fighters.

Wadjda (2013)

 

Saudi Arabia’s first film directed by a woman, and one of its first feature films ever, steals our hearts with a determined teenage girl in the lead.

wadjdaSaudi Arabia/Germany
4.5*

Director:
Haifa al-Mansour
Screenwriter:
Haifa al-Mansour

Director of Photography:
Lutz Reitemeier

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: وجدة

Finely balancing Western entertainment (a young girl in Saudi Arabia pursues her dreams in her conservative country, which basically amounts to an unconscious act of women’s liberation) with respect for the country’s traditional view of men and women, director Haifa al-Mansour has crafted a film that is sure to generate a lot of discussion abroad and at home.

Wadjda, which is also the name of the 12-year-old main character (played by Waad Mohammed), is a feel-good movie that doesn’t try to sugarcoat the reality of the restrictive environment for women in Saudi Arabia. And yet, even though women clearly have fewer rights than the men, the young Wadjda stands out not because of a deliberate activist streak but because of her very simple desire to speak truth whenever she is asked about her dreams.

Everything comes back to a bicycle, which Wadjda wants to ride – an act that is frowned upon in her society and her parents expressly forbid her to pursue. The reasoning goes the same as recent discussions about women driving in Saudi Arabia: It would allegedly render them infertile, because they would be doing something that only men have been doing. Even Wadjda’s mother, who is not unintelligent, believes this drivel, and when she catches Wadjda riding a bike, she is convinced her daughter has damaged herself and her reputation by somehow losing her virginity in the process.

It is no coincidence that the mother has Wadjda’s virginity on her mind, because she herself is now infertile after having had only one child. Wadjda’s father is unimpressed and is looking elsewhere for a second wife who can produce a son for him. The liberty granted by society to the men is easy to notice, as we recognise in a rather shocking scene when men are working on a roof overlooking the girls’ school that Wadjda attends, and it is up to the girls to go into hiding lest they be seen by (and therefore excite) the men, who usually only get to see the faces of the women in their own family.

Our insight into Wadjda’s state of mind regarding the bike doesn’t go as far as grasping whether she is entirely aware of the social resistance she is facing or simply decides to ignore others’ objections, but the important thing is that her determination comes across as courageous, because we know what she is up against.

The story, although rather simple, does provide a glimpse of burgeoning teenage sexuality, as Wadjda’s friendship and playful rivalry with a boy, Abdullah, makes clear: Her main goal in getting the bike for herself is so that she can race him and prove that she is actually just as good, if not better, than him. During the film, we get a firm impression that the young Abdullah is rather infatuated with Wadjda, and this relationship is a wondrous thing in a film where we see Salma, one of Wadjda’s classmates (also around 12 years of age), getting married off to an adult and Wadjda’s own mother rejected by her father because he now deems her reproductive organs useless to him.

The film does, however, have a wide array of characters, and besides Abdullah, the man who runs the toy shop that sells the bike that Wadjda yearns for is also a very important addition to the narrative, as he adds complexity to our perception of the Saudi population. Wadjda touches on a host of topics, including the pariah status that two girls incur when they seem to grow too close to each other, as well as the blatant lasciviousness expressed by adult males towards young girls.

Wadjda may be victimised by the men and even by her school principal, but she never plays the victim; on the contrary, we find her likeable because she reacts with the comebacks we want her to have, taking others to task for their hypocrisy and telling the truth when she feels passionate about her position. To make money to buy the bike, she also engages in some less than honest business, but we are on her side because she is not hurting anyone. And a very important scene in which she discovers a stash of money but doesn’t take any of it because it’s not hers affirms her good intentions and makes us admire her even more.

Wadjda is a strong character who clings to the truth and shows her mettle and her determination by taking part in a religious competition, and she may very well be one of the most likeable child characters to be onscreen in a very long time, making the film a true joy to watch.

When Saudis will be able to see the film, however, is still an open question, as the country barely has any movie theatres, and people get most of their silver-screen entertainment beamed in from abroad.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2013

Move (2012)

drei zimmer kueche badGermany

3.5*
Director:

Dietrich Brüggemann
Screenwriters:
Anna Brüggemann
Dietrich Brüggemann
Director of Photography:
Alexander Sass

Running time: 110 minutes

Original title: Drei Zimmer/Küche/Bad

Almost as if he is baiting the critics and the nay-sayers to respond the way he expects them to, director Dietrich Brüggemann repeats one key phrase, or value assessment, or judgment, in the very last scene of his third feature film, Move: “It tries to overwhelm, but it doesn’t transcend.” It is almost too easy to apply this criticism to the 110 minutes that precede it, as a group of 20-something friends learn to deal with growing up, mostly without any abiding success. Their inability to look beyond their common bubble means that their interactions are solipsistic, a cesspool of relationships that develop out of convenience, and the only saving grace — the reason why this film is worth your time — is its comedy, which at times literally had me rolling around with laughter.

Despite the “three” in the original title, which refers to the layout of an apartment as one would find it in the classified section of the newspaper, the film is actually divided into four parts (and a loose fifth) that mirror the seasons and thus allow us a yearlong overview of the eight central characters’ actions and the reactions they produce.

Philipp and Dina have been best friends since forever. Philipp is dating the wildly moody Maria, who is moving to Berlin to be with him. Meanwhile, Philipp’s one sister, the timid Wiedke, is moving in with the popular Dina, while his other sister, Swantje, writes down every conversation at their parents’ home and is dating a Goth. Philipp is also good friends with the expressionless, emotionless Thomas, who has been dating Anna for a while, but the relationship is clearly going nowhere. And then, the handsome Michael arrives on the scene, and most of the girls fall for him, even though he is dealing with issues from childhood. Oh, and then Philipp’s parents non-chalantly break some shocking news over Christmas dinner.

This is just part of the round robin of relationships and relationship issues that the film offers its viewers, but Brüggemann, who co-wrote the screenplay with his sister Anna (playing the role of Dina, arguably the main female character), is stunningly adept at steering our attention where he wants it to be, without ever seeming heavy-handed. He crams an enormous amount of plot into his film, perhaps too much, by cutting the material very tightly, and it is often at the end of his scenes that one recognises how other films would have lingered or over-explained. Brüggemann’s actors and his editor together create snappy moments whose meaning is immediately obvious, and yet they are as brief as they likely would have been in real life. His use of jump cuts is always well-timed and underscores the subtly comical nature of many of his more dramatic scenes.

Brüggemann’s sense of humour is equally refreshing, from hiding the identity of a peripheral character by only revealing one part of him (and then being open about the approach by having Philipp say he can never remember the guy’s face) to creating dramatically ironic comedy that only the viewers can appreciate because they see both sides of the moment to very judiciously having the same Christian missionaries knock on people’s doors at the worst possible times in their lives.

But despite the director’s masterful combination of sights and sounds (the indie band Guillemots and its front man Fyfe Dangerfield provide the background music to the film’s most emotionally resonant sequences) and narrative sprints, as well as his playful approach to storytelling (he even goes “meta” by starring as a photographer named Alexander Sass, the name of the actual film’s director of photography), his film reaches a point where the norm is the unexpected, and there is no firm sense of where all of this is headed, or what would bring closure.

The final few seconds are a case in point, as Brüggemann suggests that, despite everything these characters have been through, they are likely to go through it all again, because you never stop growing up and you never stop learning. You keep on falling, like the pots and the pans in the very first scene, or Philipp, whose skills as a cyclist leave much to be desired, but you keep getting back up. Things may be precarious, but they are not entirely hopeless, and that is why we stay tuned.

It’s not easy growing up, but watching other people doing (or trying to do) it can be hilarious. The performances of the cast members all gel together very well, and the casting of Herbert Knaup (whose turn as Lola’s father in the cult film Run Lola Run is unforgettable) as Dina’s slightly hysterical father is a master stroke. The only minor problem with casting was that Swantje (Philipp’s younger sister) and Maria (Philipp’s girlfriend) look so similar they are difficult to tell apart at first.

Move is a fast-paced look at the angst of becoming an adult and the mistakes that people make again and again as they try to find the balance between pleasure and stability. The Brüggemann brother-and-sister duo is very perceptive about the good and the bad of this period in people’s lives, and their depiction of the turmoil is genuinely engaging, even though they almost exclusively prefer to prioritise the funny sides of their episodes. The story does start to become slightly absurd towards the end, as coincidences seem to spawn more coincidences, but all in all this is a creative, masterly controlled film about a key point in the characters’ lives, and one that most audiences will be enthusiastic about.

Why Competitions (2011)

Poland / Germany

4.5*
Director:
Christine Jezior
Screenwriters:
Christine Jezior
Oskar Jezior
Directors of Photography:
Phillip Kaminiak
Theo Solnik

Running time: 78 minutes

Original title: Dlaczego konkurs

Ivo Pogorelić thinks a lot of himself. In 1980, after an unconventionally spirited performance at the revered International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, this young Yugoslavian pianist was eliminated from the contest – upon this announcement, members of the jury, including world-renowned pianist and former winner of the competition, Martha Argerich, resigned in protest. He became a sensation overnight and achieved much greater fame than the eventual winner of the competition that year, Đặng Thái Sơn.

The title asks (though without the question mark — Robert Zemeckis once remarked that no film ending in a question mark has ever done well at the box office, and therefore his own, very successful, Who Framed Roger Rabbit omitted this punctuation mark) what purpose these kinds of music competitions serve and the experts that are interviewed have very different opinions. Most of them agree, and point to Pogorelić’s subsequent career, that competitions do not ensure success for the winner. Of course, his case is a little different from the context of the other performers every year, and the film also looks at a range of other pianists to examine the validity of the experts’ statements.

Why Competitions is an insightful document of the world of competitive piano playing: using the quinquennial Chopin competition in Warsaw as a starting point, the filmmaker interviews all the major players, including many jurors past and present, and tries to piece together the varying opinions about and reactions to the jury’s decision in 1980. The film also looks at the decision in 1975 to award the first prize to the young Pole, Krystian Zimerman, instead of the Russian players who would receive the second, third and fourth prizes.

From these conversations with the different pianists, a range of political issues arises, for example we learn that Russian players, whatever their accomplishments at the competition, would not be allowed to perform outside the USSR afterwards. In the meantime, another player from outside the country – even Poland’s Zimerman – would have the opportunity to play around the world and establish a great career.

The human dimension of the jurors is also underlined and pianist Jeffrey Swann makes a very valid point when he states that the current system of points allows jurors to punish more than it rewards: A maximum of 25 points may be awarded, and often the jurors would give 16 or 17, but if they want to make a point by punishing a player because of style of appearance or whatever, they could give 0 (as happened with Pogorelić and many others), effectively ending that individual’s chances of going through to the next round. Lidia Grychtołówna, who is both a pianist and a juror, makes a similar point when she acknowledges: “At competitions, both candidates and jurors make mistakes. The difference is that jurors go unpunished.”

The more general question of the need for juries and competitions is also treated to some screen time, and Jeffrey Swann is particularly amused by the fact that he received 25 from one judge, while another gave him 0. The possible political motivations behind such decisions are cited, but one juror, Kazimierz Kord, warns us not to read too much into the disconnect between the audience’s reaction and the judges’ reaction to a piece: “Sometimes the public will applaud a performance anyway, even if they don’t understand the requirements [for interpreting Chopin].” I found this statement a little condescending, though perhaps well-intentioned.

But time and again the film comes back to the very vain, pouting Pogorelić, stroking a small dog on his lap, who claims that people are envious of his beauty and his talent, and while some might debate the latter, his claim that he is beautiful (or rather, “well-preserved […] Look: no wrinkles!”) will certainly generate some laughter. The only slightly frustrating part of the film was the otherwise agreeable Kevin Kenner who speaks for a long time in very American-inflected German before finally switching to his more natural mother tongue of English. I also would have preferred to see more of Martha Argerich, who contributes a single sentence to the discussion, or Krystian Zimerman, who is completely absent from the film.

Why Competitions manages to cram a lot of political, social and historical commentary into its 85 minutes and does so with a sense of rhythm and storytelling that is truly breathtaking, and without ever using a voice-over or explanatory text. It is a film whose theme is universal and whose specifics are always interesting.

A must-see.

Viewed at the Jihlava International Film Festival 2011