Friday, 17 January 2020

Barbara (2012 German film)

Recently, I finally managed to see the 2012 German film Barbara, after purchasing the DVD.

The film, directed by Christian Petzold, is set in the German Democratic Republic, circa 1980.  Barbara (played by Nina Hoss) is a physician, who formerly worked at a prestigious hospital in East Berlin, but she has been "banished" to a small clinic near the Baltic coast, apparently as punishment for having submitted an application to leave East Germany. Essentially the movie centres on Barbara's relationship with her colleague Andre, who has some secrets of his own, and on the activities of some people wishing to escape from the DDR.

The first things which was noticeable to me about this movie were its "autumnal" hues, characteristic of many films about East Germany. Apart from being easy on the eye, this property also helps to capture the supposed drabness of life in the DDR.

Another strand which runs throughout Barbara is a pervasive atmosphere of wariness and guardedness amongst the characters. People may have been conditioned to suspect the motives and intentions of others, expecting to be betrayed or placed under surveillance of some kind.

If a mood of mutual suspicion and distrust was indeed a feature of the East German system, then this is shrewdly and effectively conveyed in this picture. Tension is created and accentuated by a certain quietness, and an uneasy tranquility.

Much of the dialogue is sparse and clipped, as if nobody wants to say anything incriminating or susceptible to misinterpretation. The unease and circumspection are palpable. However, this is all done in such a way that the viewer senses that most citizens knew the score and the realities of the security apparatus, and that there was an unspoken assumption amongst people about the degree to which people's lives were infiltrated and manipulated.

The "provincial" setting makes a welcome change from the concrete canyons which often dominate movies about East Germany. We see some different facets of the country and the system. Many of the scenes in the countryside are accompanied by very breezy weather conditions, and this complements the subject matter quite well.

Nina Hoss gives a highly believable and sensitive performance as Barbara, and Ronald Zehrfeld is also excellent in the role of Andre Reiser, The plot unfolds subtly and gradually, not giving too much away, but it is beautifully realised, and the result is an understated but highly affecting story.

To sum up, Barbara is an absorbing, elegantly produced and at times moving film.

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Fred and Rose - The Full Story of Fred and Rose West and the Gloucester House of Horrors - Howard Sounes

Fred and Rose - The Full Story of Fred and Rose West and the Gloucester House of Horrors, by Howard Sounes, is a highly readable and reasonably comprehensive account of one of the most infamous criminal cases in British history.

I had watched numerous television documentaries about the case, but sensed that something was missing, and that only when I had read a credible and full written document would my understanding be properly augmented. This work by Howard Sounes fulfilled that function quite admirably.

There is lots of good and illustrative background on Fred West's early life in Herefordshire, and indeed much illuminating material concerning the early life of both Fred and Rose, their living conditions, and their family scenarios. The author I feel plays down to an extent some of the more speculative and outlandish aspects of the story which are routinely told even in the mainstream media.

As this is a coherent and carefully sequenced account, it is easier to understand and ruminate on how the constituent parts of the story developed, and how the dynamics between the two main participants came to bring disaster. The gaps which are left in documentaries are necessarily filled in here, and they reveal a clearer and fuller picture.

The story becomes gradually more lurid and graphic as it goes on, and mini-biographies of the victims and their families make it more real, as they underline just what was lost and just what was endured and suffered, and how many lives were affected forever by these terrible events.

I was enlightened by the passages and anecdotes which deal with the time spent on remand by Frederick and Rosemary West, how they coped with that period, and how their attitudes to each other altered. The same portions of the book also examine the impact of the investigation and ongoing revelations on the families of the couple.

The trial of Rosemary West is covered in some detail, and this helps to provide a more rounded and complete flavour to this telling of the story. People from the past, who had been mentioned in the earlier pages, now resurfaced. The full complexity and magnitude of the case, and the logistics and organisation of the investigation and the trial, are also brought across to the reader.

At various stages of the book, Sounes devotes attention to what might be termed "peripheral" characters, but these individuals and their experiences add greater depth and context to the narrative.

As the format of a book such as this allows the basic framework of the story to be filled out considerably, and for nuance to be introduced, I began to see several of the main characters in the drama in a new light, because of revelations detailed here. This all reinforces my view that books are the most telling, reliable and representative form of learning and education. Television documentaries should only really be viewed as a "catalyst" to stimulate additional research and exploration of any given subject.

The closing sections of the book offer some interesting analysis of the reasons why the tragic events evolved as they did.

In my opinion this is a fine book, which tells the horrific story in quite a measured way, although in places there is little escaping the disturbing nature of the subject matter.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Napoleon: The Man Behind The Myth - Adam Zamoyski

I have read several biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte, but this offering by Adam Zamoyski was one I simply had to check out, having enjoyed one or two of the author's other books.

Napoleon: The Man Behind The Myth takes an emotionally detached view of the great man, and is outwardly quite "dry" when compared to such biographies as Andrew Roberts' Napoleon The Great. There is little of the hero worship or hyperbole which sometimes pervade chronicles of Napoleon's life.

The point which Zamoyski appears to be making is that Napoleon was very much a man of his time, who did have some outstanding qualities, but was not a superhuman. I detected a certain scepticism about some features of the French Revolution and its aftermath, particularly concerning how certain principles of the Enlightenment were implemented practically.  Having said all this, I would emphasise that this is a balanced and convincing account, and the author points out many instances where Napoleon was in the right or vindicated by the course of events.

One of the central themes in this book is the notion of Bonaparte "saving" the Revolution, and the tension between revolutionary ideals and the measures which Napoleon deemed necessary to stabilise France after he assumed power.

As hinted at before, the book is written in quite a sober, measured style.  However, what it possibly lacks in "fireworks", it more than makes up for in depth, and genuine insight into political realities and the merits of events and initiatives.  The book can seem to start slowly, but if the reader persists he or she will be richly rewarded.

The biography is strong on strategic matters, but it does not dwell on military intricacies. One will find that certain major campaigns or episodes are not covered in the minute detail which might be expected.  Even in "condensed" form, however, the chronicling of events in Russia in 1812 is still harrowing.

A feature which recurs is the "obsession", especially after 1804, with harnessing monarchical trappings. As someone who has grown very inimical to such things, I found myself very receptive to the author's observations. A lot of care is taken to illustrate Napoleon's exercising of power and how he interacted with those around him, including his often wayward relatives.  Another key aspect of the interpretation is how the subjects of "honour" and "saving face" loomed so large, and how Napoleon became trapped by some notion of being guided by destiny and his "star".

So to conclude this is a highly authoritative and balanced assessment of Napoleon's life and career, which is underpinned by the author's sure grasp of the big picture.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Aguirre, the Wrath Of God (1972 film)

This movie, directed and produced by Werner Herzog, tells the story of a group of 16th century Spanish conquistadors who embark on an expedition in the Amazon to discover the "golden city" of El Dorado.  Klaus Kinski appears in the title role.

Some of the visual imagery in this film is quite spectacular, and reminded me somewhat of the content of some of Herzog's documentaries. Man's struggle with nature is strongly projected, as is his insignificance and helplessness when faced with the strength and pitilessness of the elements.

The plot basically centres on Aguirre's taking control of the group on the journey, in the face of mutinies, setbacks and tragedies. It is easy to conclude that the film becomes bogged down, or loses its clarity and direction, in its middle section, but these sequences are vital to understanding the narrative and the motives of the participants. With these dynamics thus absorbed, the conclusion to the work becomes more rewarding and digestible.

A large part of the fascination of this movie is its examination of power dynamics and personal megalomania, even when largely abstract and pointless, within an isolated group. A microcosm, perhaps, of human social structures and how they are affected by human nature. It also says something about the differences between real power and that which is symbolic or merely imaginary. Power can sometimes be desired and acquired for its own sake, as an end in itself, even where there appears to be no tangible objective or result.

Clearly, for a film set during the early days of European colonialism, one is forced to ask who were the civilised people, and what constitutes "civilised" behaviour. One can argue that the Europeans were self-appointed arbiters.

So overall this is a powerful, visually spectacular and engrossing film, with great, atmospheric music courtesy of Popol Vuh.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Nosferatu - Phantom der Nacht - 1979 film

I recently watched this film, directed by Werner Herzog, which is essentially a remake of the classic 1922 silent picture, which itself was essentially an adaptation of the Dracula story.

The visuals in this movie are lavish and impactful, and this factor is important in capturing and instilling the requisite mood.  The same could be said for Popol Vuh's atmospheric and evocative soundtrack. Their styles could have been made for this kind of subject matter, although perhaps not traditionally what one would associate with vampire stories.

This interpretation of the story appears to slant towards an examination of Dracula's personal plight, a psychological study, and looks at how he was trapped by his predicament.

Tension and anticipation are expertly constructed. Part of the interest is in discovering what kind of take Herzog applies to the tale and the traditions. Great use is made of brooding, menacing natural landscapes, and shadow and light. To my mind this picture is more "European" than other vampire movies, with an additional layer of mystique and eeriness.

The dialogue is relatively sparse, and this leaves gaps which accentuate the sense of dread and uncertainty. Klaus Kinski is supremely creepy in the title role, evoking a character who inspires fear, but also fascination and even sympathy.

With its Gothic majesty and the scenes involving rats, this movie is quite uncompromising, stark and unremitting, but highly accomplished technically and eminently watchable.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Lotte In Weimar - Thomas Mann

Continuing my exploration of the works of Thomas Mann, I recently read his novel Lotte In Weimar, originally published in 1939.

This novel tells the story of a visit to Weimar by a woman who was the "muse" and inspiration behind the main female character in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Charlotte has come to Weimar ostensibly to see her sister, but she becomes an object of fascination for the locals, and she has a reunion with Goethe himself.

The early chapters are very much consistent with some other Mann novels, with their vibrant and engrossing character, and their richness of detail. The passages which explore the closing stages of the Napoleonic Wars and the parallel political developments in Germany, and their effects on Goethe's family and social circle, are riveting. Conversations between Charlotte and a series of visitors serve as a fascinating examination of Goethe's personality, motivations and world-view.

Subsequent chapters were less appealing for me. Some space is taken up with a conversation which Goethe appears to have with himself, and which is delivered in almost a stream-of-consciousness manner. There are some nuggets of interest in there, though.  The narrative and the focus pick up again when the aforementioned Goethe-Charlotte reunion finally occurs.

Throughout Lotte In Weimar we see evidence of Thomas Mann's social and political concerns, largely told through the person of Goethe and others. The author's misgivings about developments in Germany during Mann's own time find echoes in a critique of  the upsurge of German nationalist sentiment during the early nineteenth century. The fact that this book was first published in 1939/40 must have furnished it with a contemporary resonance.  The political points are eloquently and sharply observed and outlined here.

So this is an intriguing and rewarding read, different in content and atmosphere to what I had anticipated.

Monday, 14 October 2019

Confessions Of Felix Krull - Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann has, in recent years, become one of my favourite novelists, perhaps rivalling only Hermann Hesse in my estimations. The prospect of reading Confessions Of Felix Krull was an enticing one.

Confessions Of Felix Krull is essentially the "memoir" of the eponymous character. Thomas Mann apparently intended to publish several volumes, but his death prevented these plans being realised.

The story is set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Felix Krull is a young man from an affluent German family. However, the family falls on hard economic times. Following his father's death, young Felix goes out into the world, to make use of his looks, his wits, his charm and his burgeoning abilities as a con-man.

Much of the early going is taken up with an exploration of Krull's formative years, and how his personality and outlook on life came about.

Some of my favourite passages in the novel concern his time spent in Frankfurt. We gain an idea and an understanding of the social conditions of that time, and we also learn about some of Felix's often lurid adventures and liaisons in the big city.  Felix then moves to Paris to work in a hotel.

I would surmise that the majority of readers will not find the character of Felix Krull very sympathetic, and may conclude that he is downright irritating. Mann may have been writing with tongue-in-cheek, and at the same time making some gentle, and occasionally not so gentle, social commentary. Although the author could have admired some of the character's qualities and talents, I doubt that their respective world-views would have overlapped much.  We are, however, left to interpret or imagine how the writer would have appraised the world in which Krull operated.

The moral ambiguity of the main character is perhaps what makes this book a less rewarding read for me than some other Mann works. The "philosophical" elements seemed more superficial and there was less depth to the characters and the narrative. Maybe the (unwritten/unpublished) subsequent volumes might have redressed the balance in this respect? On the positive side, there are still many examples of Mann's aptitude for detail, imagination and scene-setting.

As this story was "unfinished", the ending to this novel might seem enigmatic or anti-climactic. Mann had set very high standards with some of his previous offerings, but his writing is always formidable, absorbing and invigorating. Very much worth one's time.