Our Mothers, Our Fathers as an Anti-War Film

I watched Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter ('Our Mothers, Our Fathers'), the three-part German miniseries that has recently been released to decidedly mixed reviews in the USA under the title 'Generation War'. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott calls it

an attempt to normalize German history. Its lesson is that ordinary Germans — “Our Mothers, Our Fathers,” in the original title — were not so different from anyone else, and deserve the empathy and understanding of their grandchildren.'

...There is good and bad on all sides, a dash of mercy mixed into the endless violence. But the suggestion that the Nazis were not the only bad guys in Eastern Europe in the early 1940s is undermined by the film’s disinclination to show the very worst of what the Nazis did. We see massacres of Jews by local militias in Ukraine under the supervision of the SS, but “Generation War,” for all its geographical range and military detail, steers clear of the death camps.

This omission has the effect of at least partly restoring the innocence of the characters and of perpetuating the notion that ordinary Germans were duped by the Nazis and ignorant of the extent of their crimes — that they were as much Hitler’s victims as his accomplices and did not know what he was doing. They also suffered, after all, but there is something troubling about how the filmmakers apportion this suffering.

Virtually all the reviews name-check the various controversies the film provoked -- Poles were especially frustrated by the depiction of Polish anti-Semitism among partisans.

I rather liked the movie. One thing that American reviewers may not appreciate is its simple technical proficiency. Americans are spoiled -- standards of dialogue, narrative pacing and production design are now so uniformly high in American television series that Americans take it for granted that backgrounds and sets will appear extremely plausible and detailed down to the last cigarette butt or car model, and that dialogue will sound as if it were actually being produced by people in the periods and professions the actors portray. This doesn't mean that show is worth watching or the plot is plausible, but the technical stuff will seem right.

In German shows, alas, this basic level of proficiency can't be taken for granted. Generation War looks authentic, although I'm sure there are minor flaws here and there. The combat scenes are chaotic and gritty, basically copies of Steven Spielberg. Which is fine by me -- nobody does combat scenes in middlebrow war movies better than Spielberg, and there's not much room for individual experimentation, so why not copy the master? The director, Philipp Kadelbach, has worked hard at creating a bloody, gritty, nasty, violent combat background, and deserves kudos for pulling that off.

It's also refreshing to see a German movie that other nations are interested in seeing. German cinema is in at least the third decade of doldrums, producing far too many portentous didactic pieces about parochial social issues or navel-gazing rides on the hobbyhorses of the urban bourgeoisie. Germans are well aware of this problem, which is the subject anguished hand-wringing every year as the German Film Prize goes to yet another group of movies that few have seen and which sink rapidly into oblivion.

One of the culprits is the script review process, necessary to get the public funds with which these movies are made. Any juice these movies might have had is patiently extracted during this process, in which squeamish, picky film bureaucrats carefully remove most traces of originality, political incorrectness, or excessive action. I myself have seen a film script with the review marks of numerous of these prigs, whose favorite means of removing interesting scenes from movies is the phrase 'zu Hollywood' (too Hollywood). Generation War is hardly profound auteur cinema, but it's a gripping, well-made middlebrow drama with well-defined characters (the cast, as is usually the case in German movies, is outstanding) and which doesn't shy away from controversy.

The critics who carp that the movie doesn't do precely-calibrated justice to all who suffered under German rule (no death camps? Polish anti-Semites?) are missing the point. The typical German film would have tried to placate every constituency, and would for just that reason have been a pedagogic exercise. The movie focusses on the five main characters, showing 'their' wars. We see German soldiers committing plenty of atrocities, and witness ordinary Germans gleefully parroting militaristic and anti-Semitic propaganda, denouncing one another, and ruthlessly executing women and children. Not all of the five main characters survive, and the ones who do are all morally compromised. The fact that they also display some sympathetic qualities such as loyalty to friends hardly counts as whitewashing.

American critics seem blind to the fact that Generation War is an anti-war film. Americans and Britons approach a German movie about World War II with an iron framework of anticipations and preconceptions that focus narrowly on one question: Are the Germans somehow trying to whitewash their unspeakable past? Once you put aside this tired framing, you see that Generation War is about the human stupidity, groupthink, and cowardice that lead to war. The non-Jewish German characters start out swallowing Hitler's propaganda about a quick war and the international Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy (while excepting their Jewish friend Viktor Goldstein under the motto of Karl Lueger, former mayor of Vienna: 'Wer ein Jud' ist, bestimme ich' (g) -- 'I decide who's a Jew'). The rest of the movie grinds each of the four non-Jewish characters through a relentless nightmare of betrayal, hypocrisy, moral corruption, and violence that kills a few of them and leaves the rest permanently scarred and profoundly cynical. The viewer is meant to experience this as just retribution for their gullibility and gradually-expanding complicity in evil.

Generation War is a German movie that shows the horror and futility of any war anywhere. It's a straightforward, not-particularly-subtle morality tale about the dangers of nationalism and militarism. American critics might have given that aspect of the movie some thought, considering that just 11 years ago, Americans were -- with truly embarrassing ease -- suckered into supporting a pointless, brutal occupation that has now left over a million injured, 270,000 of whom have brain injuries (counting Afghanistan), not to mention the countless millions of Iraqis and Afghans killed and injured. Whether the echo was intentional or not, it's telling that one of the German characters, fighting partisans and the Red Army on the front lines in Russia, muses bitterly that just three years ago, the German army was 'greeted as liberators' from Bolshevism.


A Short Review of 'Poem'

Poem, a 2004 movie by Ralf Schmerberg that I watched for the first time last night on DVD, consists of dramatized recitations of 19 German poems from Goethe onward. Some of the poems are quite famous, others moderately so, and some slightly obscure. The dramatizations aren't connected in any way, save for the framing device of a Tibetan man carrying another man on a handmade back-chair through the mountains, which intervenes every 30 minutes or so and culminates in a poem-accompanied religious ceremony. The poems are presented in utterly different ways: some as direct dramatic declamations; some as accompaniments to documentary-like records of child-rearing, weddings, or religious processions; some as theatrical mini-spectacles; some as accompaniment to scenes which involve no humans at all.

This is a very German movie, in the best way. The poems which are recited by characters on-screen (including David Bennent, Carmen Birk, and Klaus-Maria Brandauer), are recited with whacking great dollops of dramatic flair, in the tradition of German-speaking lands. Some English-speakers, who are accustomed to less stylized poetry recitation in which the 'words are supposed to do all the work', may find this a bit off-putting at first. Yet when this sort of dramatic declamation is done right (as with Brandauer above, rendering every other reading of this Heine poem -- perhaps any Heine poem -- superfluous), it is enthralling. (It's also worth keeping in mind that these poets wrote in a culture in which they would expect their poems to be dramatically declaimed by actors.)

The settings and accompaniment for the poems are never predictable, and, at their best, create a touching, ironic, or bizarre field of interference with the words of the poem itself, as when Ernst Jandl's bleak Believe and Confess (g) (in which he bluntly states that he knows he will never see his dead loved ones again and confesses that he hasn't the 'slightest wish' for this to happen) is accompanied by tear-stained, boozy, unstaged scenes from a very ordinary German wedding, or when Trakl's frothingly mystical Morgenlied (g) is recited by David Bennent, in full knightly armor, wandering down the median of a German highway.

'Poem' is by turns mesmerizing, pretentious, funny, moving, witty, ironic, and preposterous. A few of the musical choices have gotten a bit stale (the music of Arvo Pärt, for all its charm, has become an art-house cliche), and a few of the settings are in questionable taste. But that's what makes 'Poem' so lively -- the filmmakers take risks, and sometimes the rewards are spectacular. Strongly recommended.


Bleg: Christoph Maria Herbst Lola Speech Online?

Can I ask a favor of my readers? I would like to watch the speech Christoph Maria Herbst gave at the German Film Prize 2012 a while ago in which he apparently accused German movies of being boring and noted that the fewer people had seen the nominated films than tuned into Wetten Dass... on a bad night.

I can't find this anywhere online. Any help would be appreciated!


'Rescue Dawn' Thrills, Existentially

heart-stopping herzog

On a friend's recommendation, I watched Rescue Dawn last night, a 2006 movie by Werner Herzog about Dieter Dengler. Dengler was born in the Black Forest but moved to America and became an American citizen and Navy pilot. He was shot down over Laos on a secret mission in 1965, and held prisoner in a Pathet Lao camp. The film, which is based on Dengler's own account, traces his life in the camp with prisoners from Air America and his attempts to escape from the camp and from Laos.

Like so many Herzog movies, this one features an outsider stranded in the wilderness (sometimes metaphorical, this time real), hacking his way through the jungle, sweating and cursing. Bale plays Dengler with reckless intensity,* and the ensemble cast of American prisoners, including a bearded, broken Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies doing his best Crispin Glover impression, is stellar.

All of the men in the camp were on secret missions, so they have no idea whether their fate is on anyone's radar screen back home. Some have waited for rescue for years, as chronic malnourishment took its toll and their mental composure frayed. At first greeted with suspicion, Dengler emerges as a focal point for the group of prisoners, and uses skills obtained from a metalworking apprenticeship in Germany to free the men from the shackles in which they're kept at night. Eventually, Dengler develops a plot to escape from the camp, but the others are skeptical: even if they manage to flee the camp, they will still be stuck deep behind enemy lines, barefoot, emaciated, and with no idea where they are or where to go.

The film was shot entirely on location in Thailand, and you can just imagine wildman Herzog stomping around in the mud, tearing and staining the actors' clothes and insisting that they march for hours (behind him) to acquire real sores. The jungle is an oppressive, threatening backdrop, teeming with merciless parasites and villagers thirsting to avenge themselves on the foreigners who have been bombing them for years. The only training the men have in jungle survival was a short film shown, to general amusement, on board the aircraft carrier.

Rescue Dawn is a thrilling action film, and a harrowing account of human beings pushed to the limits. Bale is masterly, showing Dengler's initial proud defiance melting into anguish, but never despair. And since this is a Herzog film, there is no flag-waving or moralizing. You become intensely involved in the characters' fates because of the humanity they show in the face of their crushing existential** predicament, not because they're on any 'team' you are expected to identify with. A gem, perhaps even a late Herzog masterpiece.

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Jeffrey Herf on The Baader-Meinhof Complex

Jeffrey Herf praises the Vergangenheitsbewältigung of 'The Baader-Meinhof Complex':

[A]n honest reckoning with the past is exactly what the movie attempts. And, in providing a frank and unsentimental depiction of the brutal excesses associated with 1960s radicalism, it sets an example that Hollywood would do well to follow.

Director Uli Edel and writer Bernd Eichinger present the RAF as it was--a brutal, violent organization--while flatly and effectively contradicting some of the myths surrounding the group. They show the RAF shooting an unarmed office worker in a successful effort to free Baader from custody, placing bombs in police departments and at the Springer Press building, and exchanging fire with police after being offered the option of peacefully surrendering. They present the RAF seizure of the German Embassy in Stockholm and the murder of its military attache, Andreas von Mirbach. Scenes of the murder of German banker Jurgen Ponto in his home (though disputed in its details by his widow) and of the assassination of German Attorney General Siegfried Buback and his bodyguards with machine guns by two assassins on a motorcycle leave nothing to the imagination; they are barbaric.

...

Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex places on the big screen the truth about these self-inflicted deaths [of the RAF prisoners in Stammheim in 1977], which RAF supporters transformed into a politically useful story of martyrdom at the hands of the allegedly fascist state.

...I hope that American filmmakers take this movie as a long overdue invitation to revisit the uglier side of this country's experience with radicalism during the 1960s--and engage in some Vergangenheitsbewältigung of our own.

Perhaps. But the big difference is that the RAF is still very much present in the German consciousness. Thousands of gallons of ink are spilled about the group every year in Germany, and even young people know about them and have an opinion on them, one way or another. In the U.S., by contrast, 1970s terrorism has a much lower profile. The first thing newscasters had to do when introducing the subject of Bill Ayers, the "washed-up terrorist" who surfaced in the 2008 Presidential campaign, was to explain to viewers who the Weathermen were and what they did. Seventies terrorism is, as the kids say, 'ancient history.'

Here are my proposed explanations for the difference: (1) the RAF sells newspapers and magazines; (2) German news outlets are controlled by former hippies for whom the RAF was a critical experience of their youth; (3) Germans are hard-wired to mull over their past; (4) the RAF killed a lot more people, and was generally more sophisticated and ruthless than the Weather Underground; and (5) there are many public figures in Germany who are willing to defend the RAF or at least 'try to understand' the RAF, with varying degrees of coyness, thus keeping the debate alive.

In the U.S., by contrast, you won't find anyone who will still carry water for 1970s terrorist groups, except for a few left-wing university professors or ranting ex-hippies). The only reason Bill Ayers became "salonfaehig" was because he had never been convicted of a crime, and had spent decades building a career as a respected professor. American commentators defended Ayers-as-he-is-today, but never showed the slightest understanding for the Weather Underground's actions or motivations.


'Decomposition of the Soul' on DVD?

It's time for another bleg. I'm looking for a DVD of a 2003 documentary called "Decomposition of the Soul," about Stasi psychological terror tactics (Zersetzung). The documentary apparently had a theatrical release in the U.S. and U.K. in 2003, and has been broadcast on German stations. Here's a review by the New York Times' critic:  

A German and Belgian co-production, “The Decomposition of the Soul” ... offers no palliatives, though partly because it’s a bore.* It takes more than a worthy subject to make a good documentary, after all; it takes intelligent, specific, directed filmmaking. The German-born Ms. Toussaint and the Italian-born Mr. Iannetta have seized on a fine subject and, in Hartmut Richter and Sigrid Paul, former Stasi prisoners, found witnesses who put a face on a national calamity. Yet they have made a film as austere and barren as an old Stasi prison hallway.

The filmmakers basically employ one strategy: they shoot interviews with Mr. Richter and Ms. Paul inside the Stasi’s former prison (part of it now a museum) in the East Berlin district known as the Hohenschönhausen. These survivor-witnesses, who were arrested on different charges, alternately walk through the building’s desolate halls and rooms, movingly relate their stories on camera and stare silently into space, sometimes while their voice-overs continue. The filmmakers are big on silence, which perhaps they mean to seem poetic, but mostly feels like padding.

Ideally, I'd like to buy a version (1) on DVD; with (2) English subtitles. I wouldn't mind seeing this film myself, but a friend of mine who's very interested in the Stasi would also like to see it, and English subtitles would help him a lot.

I made a few perfunctory efforts to find this movie on DVD, but had no luck. Then, I thought "why not see if my good-looking, ultra-sophisticated readership can find this movie for me?" Go to it, you beautiful bastards!

Continue reading "'Decomposition of the Soul' on DVD?" »


Georg Diez on Provincial German Books and Movies

Georg Diez (g), in an article called "Be Popular!" endorses a version of the doughnut-hole theory in the literature section of this week's Die Zeit.  It's not online, so you'll just have to trust my summary and translated excerpts.  Diez begins by noting that Clemens Meyer just won the German Book Prize at the Leipzig book fair. "German literature," Diez begins sarcastically, "how nice! How wonderful!" Everyone's praising each other after the book fair, but, Diez observes, nobody seems to have noticed "how small, how narrow, how provincial is the country that they're talking about -- and, unfortunately, often also the stories that are told here."

Nobody seems to want to film these boring German books. Things are different in the U.S.  Diez points to No Country for Old Men (based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy) and There Will Be Blood (Upton Sinclair) as examples. (I'd add to his list Into the Wild, Sean Penn's fine film of a 1996 book by Jon Krakauer).  On the surface, these movies might deal with life in the provinces or suburbs, but they also contain fierce and uncomfortable truths -- "the whole cosmos," in Diez's words. 

Why, he asks, "doesn't one find in German books this power, this reality, these depths, this consistency and toughness and truth, that could tempt filmmakers -- and, conversely, why don't German filmmakers search for these epic worlds[?]" He continues:

Something's missing, still today. Something that's only approximately described by the word 'reality.' On the one hand, there's the will toward popular success, to telling stories, to being understood; and on the other hand the energy that's released when differing realities collide with one another, twist each other, when injuries result, comfortable truths are torn apart, and the way down to the bottom of the abyss is laid bare, the bottom that, if you follow McCarthy, is dark and heavy -- the stuff of myths. There has to be an end to the constant 'small-small'* in our heads.

Instead of filming epic stories, Diez complains, Germans are "seriously discussing Clemens Meyer's new hairstyle."

I'm with Diez on this one.  You don't have to like all these movies, or admire everything about Hollywood (note that none of the movies Diez praises was a straight Hollywood production), to notice the difference in ambition Diez is talking about here.  I've seen plenty of recent German movies and reviewed quite a few in these pages.  Some of them were just plain dull, some of them were reasonably interesting, but none really stuck with me, except for The Lives of Others and On the Other Side.

I think there's something else at work here, besides the lack of exciting novels.  Note that the category Diez accuses Germany of underperforming in is movies that are both artsy and exciting.  Germany produces plenty of mass-market comedies and dramas for just plain folks.  The problem is that movies that are supposed to tackle 'ambitious' themes often turn out so dreary.

People in the German film industry tell me there's a norming process that controls access to German film subsidies.  Directors have to convince committees of tastemakers to fund their projects.  The filmmakers themselves, and the tastemakers, have strong preferences and prejudices.  They consider themselves proudly allergic to "Hollywood" -- which they associate with Ken and Barbie actors, canned happy endings, staged dramatic confrontations, stereotyped confrontations between good and evil, unnecessary explosions, action-movie cliches, etc.  They're looking for interpersonal drama, for social commentary, for moral ambiguity -- "anti-Hollywood" qualities.  In fact, I've personally seen film scripts that have come back to aspiring directors with passages marked "too Hollywood."

The problem, according to my sources, is that a lot of these tastemakers and directors eventually come to stamp the dreaded "Hollywood" label on any enhanced storytelling technique -- such as suspense, or a happy ending, or a voice-over.  Endings in which everything turns out basically OK will be choppped and replaced with ambiguous fade-outs.  Pleasant, likable characters who we're supposed to identify with will be criticized as too "one-sided" or "subjective."  Humor that's considered too broad (by stuffy Bildungsbuerger) will be squelched.  The end result of this process is films that end up bland and wishy-washy even when they're supposed to be provocative.

And which play in art-house theatres for 5 weeks, get polite and respectful reviews, and disappear forever.

* The original is "Es geht um ein Ende des ewigen Klein-Klein in den Koepfen."  I've translated it pretty much literally, but I get the idea I'm missing some allusion here.  Little help?


German Joys Review: On the Other Side

Auf der anderen Seite (literally translated, "On the Other Side"; English title "The Edge of Heaven") is the new movie by Fatih Akin, who made Head-On in 2004.  It's one minute longer, less confrontational, and more reflective than his earlier effort.

46ad2228500deAkin's screenplay is a pretty routine variant of "seemingly unconnected strangers whose fates pass like ships in the night."  The debt owed to movies like Short Cuts and Amores Perros is in the five figures.  Here, the passing ships include Ayten Öztürk (Nurgül Yesilçay, pictured at left), a gun-wielding young member of a "resistance group" in Turkey.  We're never told the name of the group, and the word "Kurd" is never mentioned, but her group chants solidarity with Abdullah Öcalan during a demonstration in Istanbul.  Ayten is almost arrested during this demonstration and flees to Germany under a pseudonym.

There, she tries to locate her long-departed mother Yeter (Nursel Köse) who, unbeknownst to her, now works in Bremen's red-light district.  Yeter, for her part, meets Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz), a lonely old man seeking companionship and a bit more, and his son Nejat (Baki Davrak), a professor of German studies at a German university.  Ayten (remember her?), in turn, gets to know a young German student, Lotte Staub (Patrycia Ziolkowska), who's also looking for companionship and a bit more.  After a dispute with her underground comrades in Germany, Ayten is left homeless and moves in with Patrycia and her mother Susanne (Hanna Schygulla).

Lots of complications ensue.  About half the movie takes place in Germany and half in Turkey, and much of the dialogue is in either Turkish or English.*  Characters move back and forth between the two countries both willingly and unwillingly (deportation), and the transitions are managed well.  As in Amores Perros, the different strands of the story don't take place simultaneously, a fact which is made clear to the viewer in nicely-done, understated scenes that show characters whom we've already seen die or be deported in one time-phase pass directly by their own loved ones without making eye contact in another.  The coincidences don't feel contrived, and the performances -- especially from the smolderingly rebellious Yeşilçay and the forlorn Koese, are quite good. 

Now to the weak points.  First, the structure is hardly original.  That doesn't concern me too much, though -- genre movies can innovate and entertain even without being particularly original, and this one does.  The bigger problem is that it's tough to give the characters enough depth in these jam-packed, plot-driven, asynchronous movies.  Akin comes close, but doesn't quite pull it off, especially as to the university professor Nejat and the German student Lotte.  They make some dramatic and seemingly bizarre decisions during this movie, but we don't know enough about their motives to understand these decisions.  When the characters do explain themselves (later), it sounds forced because it doesn't fit into a recognizable character structure.  Akin tells us, for example, that Lotte felt constricted by her routine middle-class existence and needed a dramatic (and practically suicidal) existential wager to feel alive again, rather than showing us this.

This flaw, though, is redeemed by so much else: original conceits and interesting characters, heartfelt moments, some genuine suspense, amusing and harrowing moments of cultural misunderstanding, and a pleasantly inconclusive ending.  Akin is prodigiously talented, and I look forward to his next feature film.**

* I note gratefully that the English and Turkish in this movie is subtitled in German, not dubbed.

** Which will be shot in New York and called "New York, I Love You".  New York, by the way, is located in the USA, a country which, in Akin's youthfully exuberant opinion, is run by fascists.  "He who f**ks nuns..."

[picture from Zelluloid.de]