Wings of Desire / Der Himmel über Berlin (1987)

February 10, 2009

This film makes me feel like I am a popcorn-chomping, blockbuster addict.  Not only do I not really ‘get it’, but I have now called it quits after making eight attempts to watch this over the course of a year and falling asleep every single time.  I don’t find the film boring at all- pretentious and self-consciously arty certainly, but not boring.  I just find that the film’s measured pace, somnambulistic progress through the streets of Berlin and snatches of conversation, music, private thoughts and dreams overlapping one another to be the perfect accompaniment to my drift toward sleep.  That this style has been done to death since by arty pop-video makers doesn’t help either.

From what I can gather it is a paean to Berlin and the people of Berlin as seen through the eyes of the angels who can “do no more than look, assemble, testify, preserve”.  There are a lot of references to children and the death of childhood- as if the people are the children and the angels are the adults watching over them.  We also see a dying man recount the things he will miss just as the angels continue to (“blackened fingers from newspaper”) again as if their existence is just an extension of our own lives.  It’s difficult to say having seen little more than a quarter of the film.

I like what I’ve seen of it- never much more than half an hour- and I’m intrigued to know what I’m missing.  But I’ve cut my losses on this one.  I’ll try again on a summer afternoon when I’m wide awake but, for now, it scores a pretentious but beautiful 2/10.


The Reader (2009)

January 25, 2009

So, after ‘Valkyrie’, onto the second part of tonight’s double bill of foreigners playing Germans.  This time, with accents.

I came into this film with no prior real knowledge- I didn’t even know that it was set in Germany- all that I did know was that Kate Winslet was highly regarded in her role and that my friend Tony D (a fine judge of all things cultural) really liked it and was intrigued by it.  I really liked it too, but the most intriguing thing for me is how it so nearly a truly great film, but sadly ends up not being.  It looks beautiful- as it should with the estimable Roger Deakins on board- and the sense of time and place are rendered beautifully through the settings and costumes and the script is excellent- by turns surprising and satisfying- so everything is in place for a classic.

The plaudits I’m hearing for Reading’s finest, though, are overdoing it.  She has a role that many actresses would kill for and nails it a lot of the time, but the performance is a little two-dimensional and the later scenes with Kate aged in make-up really let the performance down.  She doesn’t pull off the latter-day Hannah Schmitz at all for me because she doesn’t act like an old woman in either her movement or her speech.  I mentioned also that her performance is a little 2-D and this is something I wanted to comment on as a means of thinking out loud.  Winslet’s performance gives no real insight into the person or her motivation, the script does- a little- in the courtroom scene, but you never see these things acted out.  The character is as much a puzzle at the start as at the end because no clues are given.  When it comes to portraying her embarrassment over her illiteracy, Winslet is fine, but for the tougher stuff which would really have made the performance something spectacular I found her wanting.  On the other hand, Bruno Ganz and especially Lena Olin’s small cameos were of the highest calibre- especially her scene with Ralph Fiennes (who did his usual ‘credible Liam Neeson’ performance) and definitely worthy of greater scrutiny.  Speaking of performances, David Kross as the young Michael really stood out- he moved from callow to embittered without missing a beat.

David Kross, however, is also one of the directorial weaknesses that held the film back.  He does a fine job as Michael in 1958 and again in 1968, but the only concession to the ageing process that we see is that his fringe has grown a bit and he’s stopped wearing shorts.  When he reappears again in 1976 as Ralph Fiennes, more than a little ageing has gone on.  And his nose has shrunk.  I’m not a big fan of make up but a little on Kross in 1968 and a prosthetic nose on Fiennes would’ve helped keep things totally plausible.  In addition to this choosing Lena Olin to play a mother and her daughter is unnecessary and distracting.  Small touches like this counted against the director (Stephen Daldry).  I like to see a film where everything is deliberate and rationalised, but too many things in ‘The Reader’ were left unexplored, rather than unresolved.  It just seemed like the director sometimes felt “I’m not spending more time on ‘that’, they’ll get the message” without ensuring that the message was properly conveyed.

What hampered the film most, though, was an intangible feeling it provoked in me.  The themes explored necessitate ambiguity, but that doesn’t mean things should be left unresolved for the filmmaker.  I just got the sense that Daldry didn’t really know how he felt about his characters- young Michael and the Auschwitz survivors aside.  The ambiguity strikes you as possibly unintentional and so the power of the messages is lost.  That’s why it’s an almost-amazing film but only rated at 7/10.

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)

January 13, 2009

I am on such a run of great films that it’s in danger of getting a little tiresome to record my thoughts on here.  Another wonderful film, how predictable!

But this IS  a wonderful film.  Being a retelling of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic, this film has to be special simply to avoid being a failure and is.  Herzog brings to the film a visual intelligence and a mastery of atmosphere which never wavers.  From the bright and airy opening in the Harkers’ home to the run down, austere isolation of Dracula’s castle, Herzog controls the viewer experience down to the nearest detail.  These are not images which are obvious or border upon self-parody, they are real and ground the viewing experience.  For stretches of the film, there is an almost dreamy mysticism about what we are seeing (at one point Harker states that he feels as though he was in a nightmare from which he cannot awake) but this is never achieved through simplistic, surreal imagery.  The film is built upon the atmosphere which Herzog creates through simple visual storytelling, with minimal but timely support from the soundtrack.  The meeting between Renfield and Harker is unsettling visually and disturbs all the more as a result, the scenes within the castle are claustrophobic and oppressive, the handheld footage of Harker’s journey takes us with him through breathtaking but ominous scenery and when finally we arrive at the castle the introduction of the vampire is sudden when film-watching conditioning prepares us for a tension-building, drawn-out wait.

When Harker (Bruno Ganz, a fine actor) first encounters Dracula (Klaus Kinski) the viewer is thus taken aback.  Suddenly, from trepidation we are confronted with the stark, cold presence of Count Dracula.  There is a chilliness which emanates from the screen and- though he looks very similar to Max Schreck in the original- Kinski’s appearance at the door retains the power to shock.

A word about Kinski at this point.  Having recently seen his seething, unhinged portrayal Aguirre it would not have been a stretch to imagine his Dracula being equally malevolent in tone.  It is not.  Neither does he settle for Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi’s more urbane and charming depiction of the vampire.  Kinski’s Dracula is racked with remorse at his condition, he is soft-voiced and almost effeminate but racked with self-loathing- his stealthy movements and bat-like countenance are at odds with his awkward stance and almost pitiful reluctance to act like the monster that he is.  His inner torment is present in every anguished movement, every syllable is tormented- when he is rejected by Lucy Harker (an impressive, and almost vampiric-looking Isabelle Adjani) he responds not with fury or force but with the anguished whimper of a whipped cur and a sorrowful retreat into the night.  To portray a grotesque fantasy figure of such widespread fame as real and believable, is both courageous and unexpected.  Kinski, again, proves himself to be a preconception-shattering actor of depth and resourcefulness.

Every scene here is shot through with a thorough attention to detail, the work that has been done to achieve this has been painstaking, there are scenes which would today be achieved through CGI and would look impotent but here are authentic and hard-hitting (most notably the rat-infested feast of the plagued).  Every aspect of the film has been tightly controlled, it is shot through with a purposefulness and an intent of supporting the whole which is monumental.  Herzog intended every second of footage to have precisely the effect that it does.  This is masterful scrupulous direction.

And it is in this way that Herzog is able to frame his film as a faithful but nevertheless non-derivative retelling of Murnau’s tale.  Kinski’s almost feral movements allow the key scenes featuring him to work in near-silence, his ghostly pallor allows the footage to become almost monochrome.  A tremendous achievement – 9/10.