Category Archives: Imaginary German Cinema

#193 – Devils in Harbin, The (Teufel in Harbin, Die)

(1979, WGer, 111 min) Dir Nickolaus V. Müller. Cast Wolfgang Feebler, Alfred Abel, Patti Bapp.

Of course Nickolaus V. Müller, the constant enfant terrible of German cinema, would reimagine the spectre of European terrorism in the form of this absurdist comedy. Based less on the exploits of his countrymen the Red Army Faction and more on the Italian Red Brigade’s kidnapping of Aldo Moro meshed with the Symbionese Liberation Army’s brainwashing of Patty Hearst, Devils sees incompetent middle class terrorist group the Red Devils (who have no connection to Manchester United football team or parachute displays) abduct fictional German President Hans Beuller and persuade him to their side. Of course their kidnapping is all an accident with Beuller initially mistaking the group for a half-dozen Young Christian supporters and his eventual indoctrination more to do with LSD spiking and free love than his prolonged exposure to their muddled ideology. By the end he’s joining in on the raid of a television station dressed, like them, as a Nazi in clown paint. As subtle as a sledgehammer and as politically incisive as a children’s drawing it remains unmissable due to the sheer verve of the filmmaking.

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#185 – Flex/Flesh

(1967, Wger, 14 min) Dir Nickolaus Müller.

Narrativeless German bodybuilding doc. Emboldened by a screening of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, reclusive law student Müller scratched up whatever money he could and shot this, his debut short, ultimately setting himself onthe road from reclusive law student to the flamboyant experimental filmmaker that shot across film history like a shooting star. But that was all in the future – what promise does this scant fourteen minutes show? Well, the first thing that jumps out at the viewer is the acknowledged debt to the Anger film in form though without Scorpio Rising‘s challenging iconography. In saying that the fact that the film is stripped down to just muscular men pumping iron works in the film’s favour as it becomes less about culture and subculture and more about the human body, both in the how of it’s sculpting and in reverence to it. Also evident is his skill in both filming and editing, how he has captured small but telling moments that he has integrated slyly into the finished product – I’m thinking here of the old man watching from a window as he passes, a snatched glimpse preserved in the film where it sits as a mystery of desire emblematic of the director’s own position. For completists only for sure but still rich in pleasures of it’s own.

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#183 – Schmähung (Abuse)

(1975, WGer, 99 min) Dir Hans Berg. Cast Wolfgang Feebler, Patti Hess, Maximilian Singerman.

Berg, responsible for cinematic crimes in the form of Little Dieter sequels A Drum for Little Dieter and Little Dieter’s Red Balloon, began his redemption here with an adaptation of Karl Klaus Faber-Hoffer’s play, a political cause celebre at the time. The film, like play, centres on a young group of conceptual agitators who roam Berlin instigating violent arguments with the general populace. Where the play saw the action confined to a prolonged bout of ‘cleansing rage’ in a fancy restaurant where the actors frequently broke the fourth wall to roam the aisles harassing the audience, the film spreads the canvas over the whole city and includes many surreptitiously shot scenes of the actors enraging actual citizens on the street as well as the inevitable fourth wall moments of actors turning to the camera to tell the viewer what they think of them. Where the play eventually ends in an orgy of violence with the restaurants’ high class patrons turning on the group and stabbing two of them to death, the film continues past this point with the group being tracked down by the police and eventually becoming a Baader-Meinhof alike gang of terrorists though with even less of a rational political credo. A defiantly abrasive film very much of it’s time but undoubtedly influential – definite shades of Haneke’s Funny Games and Von Trier’s The Idiots here.

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#170 – Golden Padlock, The

(1931, Ger, 61 min, b/w) Dir Hans Thomas Mann.

Hans Thomas Mann (not to be confused with regular old Thomas Mann, sans Hans) was an early pioneer in German cinema. In the early days he ran a one man operation, producing his own ‘lantern shows’ (rudimentary animation, mostly) with which he would then tour the country to show with his daughter Pini as assistant. In his autobiography, The Picture Man, he revealed that his tours took him up mountains, down valleys and across half of Europe to bring cinema to the country folk who would not have witnessed such a thing otherwise. This golden era for Mann ended, rather inevitably, when the First World War broke out. Like many during those long hard years he lost much, not least his beloved daughter. The interwar period found Mann struggling for work but he found himself a patron in Lupu Speyer, star director of Zwei Brüste (and, more famously, 1927’s megabudget flop Götz von Berlichingen) who had first been introduced to cinema as a boy by Mann’s travelling show. Speyer, having clout in spades at this time, wrangled Mann the budget for his debut film with an actual budget and what would turn out to be his final film – The Golden Padlock. The fairy tale story of a young girl lost in a vast forest primeval and the titular object that keeps shut the door leading to her home in the subterranean land of fairy. It’s totally animated in a style similar to Lotte Reiniger (whose career was taking off about the same time) with the padlock hand painted in a fashion that shimmers off the screen. A soundtrack silent save for the sound of a distant flute only adds to the etherial strangeness. A labour of love obviously made in honour of his lost daughter the process as a whole took almost ten years, during which time Speyer’s career had peaked and nosedived back into obscurity and Mann had emigrated to England where the film was finished. It’s been seen very few times since then but the BFI have a fantastically well preserved copy in their vaults which they wheel out on occasion – if you get the opportunity run, don’t walk, to see it.

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#151 – Elisa Lees

(1972, Fr/Sp/WGer, 82 min) Dir Helmut Durmou. Cast Lisa Beit, Howard Messinger, Peter Feebler.

Serious Seventies kink from Swiss director Helmut Durmou, the man who quietly amassed a fine oeuvre of very personal and highly specialised films over his thirty year career and who sadly died in the first week of this year at the age of eighty-one. Elisa Lees was his first film, made at the age of forty-two with privately sourced funds and follows the awakening of its naïve title character as she is inducted into a new world. So far, so generic as far as these things go but about halfway through the film the dominated becomes the dominatrix and she returns to discipline the men who once held mastery over her. This isn’t done in a mean, revengey kind of way though – Durmou’s films frequently kept their eye on the ball with regards consent and roleplay and the men are all very grateful once she’s done with them with the suggestion floating about that we’re merely bearing witness to a kind of ‘edited reality’ and that there is a larger story at play that we are only glimpsing. It’s a little rough around the edges but Durmou’s classical staging and clear, sharp photography are already on display – he clearly knew what he wanted from the outset.

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#150 – Umber Erneut (Umber Once More)

(2010, Ger, 101 min) Dir Heinz Fäberhöck. Cast Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Nina Hoss.

1918. Gerhard Franz Holstein returns home from the front. He left his home a budding economics student and has returned the shell of a man. He sits in the attic of his family’s home day after day now, working on his grand project: he is working on the history of Umber, a country he invented to keep him sane during his time in the trenches. Now , far from saving his mind, it is taking it over instead. Decades pass outside his window and inside Umber takes on ever more a layered history with a national anthem he plays each morning on the trumpet, a flag that hangs on his bedroom wall and paintings and drawings in his own naïve style that illustrate every corner of the world that he has invented where brotherly love fills every corner and peace reigns eternal. Outside the Nazis rise to power and it seems his days of peace are numbered – war returns to Germany and contact with the outside world grows ever more inevitable. Of course there are no happy endings here. Based on the true story of the outside artist whose works now grace the wall of prestigious galleries the world over, Umber Erneut treads carefully on the line between worthiness, whimsy and the sober realities of Germany at the time and mostly gets it right, ably abetted by a strong cast doing what they can to help.

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#117 – Pass into Heaven’s Arms, The

(1976, WGer, 100 min) Dir Roland Sacher. Cast Harvey Keitel, Isabelle Adjani.

Tough American mountaineer Jack Maggit (Keitel) has secured permission to enter China to search the Himalayan Mountains for the fabled valley of Pannak Coor, the mystical opening into the earth that eluded his famed explorer father, eventually driving him mad. Maggit sees this as his last best chance of wresting his family’s name from his father and securing himself a lasting legacy. Desperate to claim the glory for himself alone he permits only his wife Alison (Adjani) to come with him and document the trip. This set up takes all of five minutes at the film’s head with lots of methody shouting in a New York apartment before they leave, slamming the door and the film cuts to the Tibetan plateau where the echo of the slamming door melts into the sound of the wind as the two distant specks that are Jack and Alison are dwarfed by the mountains around them. It’s odd though, for Sacher, as the start of the film is much more like what one would expect from the director – enclosed spaces and lots of acting – and the rest of the film is altogether more sweeping, epic and visual than is common in his oeuvre. That’s not to say that it doesn’t work and that there aren’t a couple of scenes of intense emotion (and shouting) to be had either because it does work and there are plenty of acting moments for Keitel to chew on too. The film’s ending is another story completely, turning from a David Lean film into a Alejandro Jodorowski one when the valley is found and visions of inverted rainbows and glowing green spider webs that bind the world start flying about.

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#72 – Sadist, Der (Sadist, The)

(1978, WGer, 120 min) Dir Hans Berg. Cast Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jürgen Prochnow.

Named after the non-fiction book by psychiatrist Karl Berg (no relation to the director) about the life and crimes of notorious serial killer Peter Kürten who had previously been immortalised on the screen as the inspiration for the killer played by Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s M. The film begins as a two-hander between Kürten (Trintignant) and Berg (Prochnow) as the former details his life to that point. Trintignant is impeccable as Kürten, betraying no emotion on the surface, his excitement at recounting his terrible deeds manifest as nothing more than a dull glint in his eye. The only distraction to his performance is the imperfect dubbing which occasionally serves to flub the odd dramatic moment. The flashbacks are the model of restraint, with Kürten’s words painting the picture and not the camera which makes it all the more absurd that the film spent six months being banned in it’s home country before an outcry saw this decision overturned. This was the first film that showed the future promise of director Berg – he was previously known for two entires in the awful Dieter film series about a dictatorish child but would go on to have a distinguished career in the decade ahead.

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#16 – Götz von Berlichingen

(1927, Ger, 156 min original (44 min surviving), b/w) Dir Lupu Speyer. Cast Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Wera Engels, Alfred Abel.

The product, like the same years’ Metropolis, of the late twenties film budget excesses and, also like Metropolis, a less than resounding success at the box office. The two film’s paths have diverged since, with Metropolis accumulating praise and restorations while Götz von Berlichingen has never been easily available in any format. This reviewer, for example, has only seen it by virtue of the shockingly truncated copy held as part of the collection of a wealthy aficionado (whose name must remain anonymous). Loosely based on Goethe’s play of the same name, the surviving film includes the most famous parts of von Berlichingen’s life such as the loss of his arm by cannonball (rendered in full gory glory) and its replacement with one made of iron. In a move typical of the liberal national mood of the time, von Berlichingen’s famous statement during the siege of his castle at Jagsthausen – “…sag’s ihm, er kann mich im Arsche lecken!” – is included in full as a title card, something unthinkable before or after. It is perhaps this, in addition to the films irreverent attitude to a person who had both submarines and a Panzergrenadier division named after him by the Nazis, that meant that it was suppressed in the years that followed as ‘degenerate art’. It’s not a perfect film – at least as far as can be judged in its current form – but its well shot, well acted and deserves to be seen by more than the occasional dedicated hunter.

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