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.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Les Rendez-vous d'Anna (The Meetings of Anna) - 1978 film

This is an intriguing and sometimes unsettling film, directed and written by Chantal Akerman, and starring Aurore Clement.

The story follows a film-maker (Anna) as she journeys across Europe on business. Along the way she has encounters with friends, strangers, relatives, acquaintances and lovers. She listens to the other people as they tell their stories and their gossip, but she seems curiously distant and disengaged. This is a film about isolation, the personal price of success, and about the human condition in general, set against the backdrop of an economically and socially stagnant continent, rendered so by the energy crisis and its effects.

I would say that the world portrayed in this movie is dreary and impersonal, characterised by uniformity, routine and ennui. There is almost a surreal flavour at points, conveying the unnaturalness and loneliness. The relative sparsity of the dialogue heightens the unreality and the discomfort, as does the relative absence of bystanders when characters are interacting with each other.

Aurore Clement is perfect for the role of Anna.  Effortlessly elegant and compelling, but possessing the ability to maintain an impassive visage, which at the same time is curiously evocative.

The impression which emerges is of people fighting against the coldness and superficiality of their lives, seeking humanity and emotional contact amongst the torpor, their discussions fluctuating between the trivial, the profound and the incongruous. This leads to awkwardness, people struggling to be natural, relaxed or expressive. Communication, or genuine communication, is difficult.

Throughout, the writer/director appears to be essaying a commentary on post-war Europe.  The adults of that time are still affected by their experiences, and the legacy of, World War Two. Some of the routines and regimentation of the war, and the post-war epoch, are still evident.

Some of the unreality experienced by creative people is perhaps explored here. Anna struggles to express herself in everyday discourse, so maybe she leaves things to her films;easier that way.

The cinematography and backdrops are in accord with the general tone. Darkness, cold and overcast weather predominate, and they complement the illustrations of the grind and occasional futility of life, the feeling of being powerless and on a treadmill.

Viewing this picture provoked ruminations in me about how much has really changed since the late 1970s. I have a feeling, or more specifically a hope, that things might have changed in another forty years from now, but I fear that even then this work will have a heavy contemporary pertinence.

The dialogue sometimes hints that work blocks out, or assuages, some of our dissatisfaction or disillusionment, at least for a while.  One might enquire what sort of life that is, or is that what life is actually supposed to be, all along?

We are all searching for something, usually fruitlessly.  The sense of transience may persuade some that life is a series of moments, and that we must extract the maximum possible from those moments.

I wouldn't necessarily describe this as a life-affirming film, but it is one which powerfully illustrates forces and factors which we constantly need to be aware of, as they have the potential to damage us, or define us.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Sonnenallee - 1999 film

I recently watched Sonnenallee, a 1999 German comedy film, directed by Leander Haussman.

This is a movie which I had been wanting to see for some little time, and I was glad that I did.  The work tells the story, set in the late 1970s, of a group of people living in East Berlin, very close to the East/West border. Indeed, the street on which they reside is "bisected" by the Berlin Wall itself. Some have friends or relatives living in the West.

The younger people are obsessed with "forbidden" Western rock and pop music.  One of the characters devotes much of his time endeavouring to obtain, by "unofficial" means, a copy of the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main St. album.

The main character, Micha, is preoccupied with his efforts to win the heart of the beautiful Miriam. Alexander Scheer excels in the role of Micha, and it is his performance which helps make Sonnenallee so endearing and entertaining.

As I watched the picture I found myself trying to work out which parts of the script were satirical and which were intended literally. The writers were undoubtedly poking fun at some of the GDR's shortcomings and absurdities, but I also gained the impression that they were seeking to get across the notion that the state had its plus points.  They may have been hoping to go beyond stereotypical portrayals, and in places could actually have been satirizing the West's often simplistic depictions of East German society.

There are some great "set piece" scenes in the film, some revolving around music, others looking at peculiar or noteworthy aspects of life in the GDR.  I enjoyed the parts which examined the issue of the smuggling of contraband from West to East.

Quite apart from the historical and political sub-texts, this is simply a very engaging and enjoyable film. I am admittedly highly receptive to the subject matter here, but I found this much funnier than most Western films of its type.

Friday, 20 September 2019

We'll Live Till Monday - 1968 film

We'll Live Till Monday, directed by Stanislav Rostotsky, is a 1968 Soviet film.  Set in a Moscow school, it examines the relationships and tensions between staff and students in said establishment.

This is another one of those movies which just had to be produced in black-and-white, as the monochrome makes for a certain ascetic quality, as well as offering scope for some effective imagery and symbolism.

The central character in this drama is the history teacher Melnikov. He appears sour, careworn, abrupt and something of an outsider with his colleagues.

A notable feature of this film for me is the irreverence of some of the main players and their dialogue. It is good that we have the chance to see these films. They show a side of the USSR which some people cannot conceive of.  The same dynamics, concerns and conflicts existed in Soviet institutions as they did in their Western equivalents.  It may be that the school was intended as a microcosm of tensions and upheavals in wider Soviet society.  People were striving for means of self-expression and autonomy, testing the boundaries perhaps.

It also occurred to me that the school portrayed here was less rigid and regimented than my own alma mater in England....

Throughout there are subtle commentaries and observations concerning Soviet educational and cultural matters, often delivered with some sarcasm or cynicism.

I liked the sets and the bleak-ish sense of realism in this picture, and in general there is a sense of refinement and elegance which truly appealed to me. No big portentous themes, just an intelligent and endearing piece of film-making, containing fine acting from many of those involved.

Perhaps the most intriguing quote from the film - "Happiness is to be understood"....