Friday, 23 September 2016

Marianne and Juliane - (1981 movie)

Following on from seeing The Legend of Rita and Die Innere Sicherheit, I recently watched an earlier movie which covers similar subject matter,  Marianne and Juliane, directed by Margarethe von Trotta, and released in 1981.  Its German title was Die Bleierne Zeit. 

The film tells the story of two sisters who take different paths in trying to change the world.  It is fictionalized, but it is apparently based on the life of Gudrun Ensslin and her family.  Marianne pursues a course as a political militant, whilst Juliane works as a journalist/activist. The film focuses on the relationship between the two, and on Juliane's efforts to help and support her incarcerated sibling.

I was going to say that the movie has a bleak and gloomy aesthetic, but on reflection it is based on realism and authenticity.  So many films of this type try too hard either to faithfully recreate historical detail or to convey a "mood", and turn out as contrived. Marianne and Juliane is very different, and very natural and unforced.

The acting in the film has rightly been praised, but I must single out Jutta Lampe's superb performance as Juliane.  Very measured and very convincing, and those eyes.  Barbara Sukowa is also impressive. I don't think she is quite as good here as she would be in her later portrayal of Rosa Luxemberg, but she does manage to evoke some of the harsh, uncompromising but resolute nature of the Marianne character.

Some of the running time is occupied by "flashback" sequences from the sisters' childhood, but they don't necessarily give us straightforward or comfortable answers as to how the two people turned out as adults. The prison sequences are also beautifully and atmospherically captured.  The symbolism throughout the story is subtle, almost ambiguous (such as a statue of Bismarck), and in general the moral messages are the same.

Working out Juliane's true motives as things progress is no easy task, and it may be that they are left deliberately hazy. The story does not consciously set before us clearly defined moral choices or boundaries.  This is where much of the strength of the picture lies.  The view presented of the world is a nuanced one, where there are not two diametrically opposed points of view, but many different "poles", diverse motivations and perspectives.

Marianne and Juliane is a absorbing film, which is also a genuine story.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Die Innere Sicherheit - 2000 film - review

The German film, Die Innere Sicherheit (English title: "The State I Am In"), directed by Christian Petzold, and released in 2000, follows the experiences of two former terrorists and their teenage daughter, as they live in hiding, on the run from the authorities, first in Portugal and later in Germany.

The daughter Jeanne (Julia Hummer) yearns to sample the delights, adventures and discoveries of adolescence, but this has the potential to imperil her parents. A lack of money, support and accommodation forces them to take some desperate and risky measures, and at times their plight is miserable and stark.

Jeanne is the focus of much of the movie, and to be frank I found the parents, Clara and Hans, to be somewhat one-dimensional characters.  Julia Hummer's performance as Jeanne is a revelation, conveying the sullen demeanour and rebelllious streak of a young person who has clearly grown up in an surreal, unconventional and bewildering world.

The tone of this picture is dark and insidious, and these patterns are intensified by the fact that much is left unsaid, unexplained or merely implied, and left to the imagination of the viewer. The imagery and the terse dialogue are left to paint the picture and reflect the narrative. The editing is creative, sharp and even disorientating, exacerbating the oppressive and bleak mood of the piece.

To me, the "political" dimension of the story was secondary to the human dramas enveloping Jeanne, as well as her parents. A strong sense is engendered that they are ostracized from a society which would not understood them even if it sought interaction. A soulless and uncaring world is depicted, the settings being suitably austere and unwelcoming. People did not know who they were, but would have detested and shunned them if they had known.

When the fortunes of the family are at their lowest ebb, we are confronted with some harrowing and mournful scenes. Often there is little sound or dialogue, just doleful, empty or confused facial expressions and emotions, as they contemplate how to circumvent the latest obstacle or impending crisis.

The ending to the movie is suitably brutal and pitiless, but I detected a modicum of poetic justice in the outcome for Jeanne, however tragic it immediately appeared.  We do not discover, of course, how things later turned out.

Overall, this is a thoughtful and atmospheric film. Absorbing and quite unusual, and well worth people's attention.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Legend of Rita - (2000 movie) - review

I recently watched the German film "The Legend of Rita", from the year 2000, (released in Germany under the name "Die Stille Nach dem Schuss), directed by Volker Schlondorff.  Somehow this movie had escaped my attention for the past decade and more, which is odd when I consider that its subject matter is the type which genuinely fascinates me.

The movie tells the story of a West German former urban guerrilla (Rita, played by Bibiana Beglau) who takes refuge in East Germany, and is provided with a new identity by the Stasi, and assumes the guise of an "ordinary" citizen in the socialist state.  She has to cope with the fear of her past being exposed, and thus causing embarrassment to the authorities of the DDR, and the fall of the Berlin Wall later complicates the situation further. Her relationship with Tatjana (Nadja Uhl) is also explored.

Once the preliminary sequences were out of the way, and the story settled into a portrayal of Rita's travails in her new life in the East, I felt that the film found its true identity. The "human interest" angles were sensitively done, and were quite touching at times, especially the friendship between Rita and Tatjana. The tension was palpable, as one kept expecting Rita's cover to be blown in some way, or for her "back story" to unravel, and this helped me identify with her anxiety and also appreciate the resilience and vigilance she had to summon up in order to cope.

There are clear allusions in this movie to real people, and to real-life events, but in the end it is a fictitious tale. This means that there was no need, or temptation. to pack in every historical anecdote and incident.  "The Legend of Rita" moves at its own pace, and on its own terms.

In my view, the early "action" scenes were a mixed bag, but I guess that they were essential to some degree for a full understanding of the background to the story. The rhetoric emanating from the mouths of the "terrorists" was occasionally corny, but it also helped to highlight and express their frustrations, their dilemmas and the disagreements which occasionally plagued their enterprises.

One of the central themes which the film articulates is how Rita's idealism and enthusiasm for the GDR "project" came up against the cynicism and apathy of the East German people who she encountered. As much of the story is set in the 1980s, the penny had clearly dropped with the populace by then. I ended up seeing both sides of the argument, acknowledging the stultification which the East Germans had endured, but also perhaps sensing that Rita had really "found" herself in her new environment, having escaped what she perceived to be the numbing effects of consumerism and the "rat race".

"The Legend of Rita" also raises the old question of theory versus reality, with the main protagonist being brought face-to-face with the pragmatism which real life, bitter and sour experience, and empirical evidence,  instill in people. Fine and lofty words and ideas are all well and good, but they don't always work in practice, or satisfy the basic aspirations of the masses. There is one very instructive scene, just after Rita has made the decision to remain in the East, when Erwin, the Stasi man, does his best, using some oblique language,to warn her what she will be up against.

It would be easy to accept that the film presents an image of uniform greyness, austerity and conformity in East Germany, but that is not quite the impression which I formed. We see many attitudes, problems and practices which have a universal resonance, including mental illness and alcoholism.  Yes, the tone and the atmosphere are primarily dark, but isn't this everyday life, for most people, wherever they happen to live?  The picture which was painted was to me rather nuanced and credible.

Two acting performances really stand out.  Bibiana Beglau is excellent as Rita, conveying her complex personality, which has perhaps partly been conditioned by her unorthodox life. A mixture of insecurity, courage, resolution, fear and even fatalism. Nadja Uhl is very engaging as Tatjana, bringing out her character's vulnerability and her humanity. The scene where the two characters part I found very moving, and also tough to watch.

I found this picture to be more plausible and well-executed than most works which cover similar territory.  The understated production values, and the believable countenance of some of the characters aided in this. It certainly got my grey matter churning, and the movie gently poses some awkward and pertinent questions.

I still wasn't quite expecting that ending, though....

Monday, 12 September 2016

(The History Of) The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire - Edward Gibbon

I recently finished the marathon effort of reading an abridged version of Edward Gibbon's The History Of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  It featured 28 of the 71 chapters in full, with summaries of the remainder.

Even in an abridged format, this was a monumental tome. The work was written in the 18th century, so some views expressed seem dated, unsurprisingly.  However, it is hard to dispute that Gibbon could write, and his command, and evident relish, of language are startling, as is the confidence which the writing exudes.

As some have observed, Gibbon's trenchant opinions on certain matters, most notably religious topics, are often couched beneath sarcasm and irony, and it sometimes takes some attentiveness to determine precisely when he is being "literal".  Some of the passages in question only heighten the eloquence, whilst also providing some amusement.

The degree of vehemence, and level of sardonicism, are not uniform throughout, probably a consequence of the work being written over a period of some years. I was quite taken with his depictions of some of the religious fanatics of medieval times, and also with his less than glowing praise for the monastic lifestyle.

Basically, the period covered is from the 1st century CE through to the fall of Constantinople. The middle areas of this version of the book did become rather bogged down, for my tastes, with the theological disputes and conflicts of early Christianity, although once again the richness of the writing is difficult to fault, and helps to maintain the interest.

His views on Byzantium are perhaps what one would have expected of man of the Enlightenment, although they are somewhat at odds with much of the scholarship on that subject which appears these days.

Now that I have read this abridged version, I can definitely see what all the acclaim was about, and I am glad that I made the commitment.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Flash Gordon - Queen

Yesterday, prompted by the occasion of what would have been Freddie Mercury's 70th birthday, I decided that it would be a good idea to commit to blog form some of my thoughts about one of Queen's least remembered and appreciated projects, the soundtrack to the 1980 film Flash Gordon.

These days it seems to me that the album is regarded as an afterthought, almost as an aberration, and not really taken that seriously, a novelty or curiosity within the context of an overall body of work. However, whenever I go back and listen to the music, I am reminded what a compact and polished piece of work it is, within certain parameters.

I am not really qualified to comment with much authority on how the music complemented the visuals in the film itself, as I find it difficult to bring myself to watch the movie.  In fact, one or two critics have argued, rather persuasively, that Queen's music is one of the film's few redeeming features.

When appraising the Flash Gordon album, one must also bear in mind that it was recorded within a tight timeframe, sessions being squeezed in around the hectic schedule which Queen were pursuing around that time, and time had to be found alongside the band's myriad other commitments. The finished result is a quiet tribute to their resourcefulness and their talents.

Of course, the project represented a stylistic departure for Queen, with the preponderance of instrumentals and the heavy utilization of synthesizers.  The decision to make the soundtrack album "narrative" in nature, and to insert dialogue from the motion picture, was an inspired one. The whole "Flash Gordon" experience can be savoured without the need to subject oneself to the movie itself.

The songwriting and composition process must have involved different disciplines, too, with pieces written "to order" rather than coming from the heart. Many of the pieces do not make much sense outside the context of the soundtrack.  They were not seeking to make a magnum opus, but to create music to fit certain scenes, sequences and moods.

The title track and "The Hero" are to the clearly identifiable conventional songs, and they bookend the record.  Some of the instrumentals are "rock" with contemporary and modernistic embellishments, usually in the form of those synths, which Queen had famously shunned until not that long before this album was recorded.  There are some genuinely affecting and haunting melodies in there ("In The Space Capsule", "Ming's Theme" etc), whilst others are rather more prosaic.

So it is unfair to judge the Flash Gordon soundtrack album by the same criteria as one would a standard studio release. There are not as many accessible tunes as on the bland soundtrack albums which began to proliferate in the 1980s. This is, in many respects, a "true" soundtrack, in that the music is specifically designed to accompany and complement the visuals on the screen.

It is not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it is highly enjoyable.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

In recent years, I have been most invigorated and energized by my acquaintance with some classic German literature, in the main Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann and, I will say, finding it more stimulating and engaging than most of the work by English writers that I have encountered in the same period.

This process has also brought me into contact with the world of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and I recently read his novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, which had been lurking unread on my Kindle for some little time.

I didn't weigh myself down by seeking to determine whether this was a novel of ideas, a philosophical novel, or a bildungsroman. I am in accord with those who have noted that it defies easy categorization.

Basically, the story follows the journey of the eponymous character, as he strives to escape a bourgeois career, and initially seeks to make a career as an actor. The tension between the bourgeois and the bohemian, the worldly and the spiritual, reminded me, superficially at least, of the works of Hermann Hesse.

Particularly to a modern reader, the story does not appear stunningly original, but it is so absorbing that this is largely immaterial. The characters discuss all manner of ideas encompassing art, literature, religion, politics, philosophy and human nature.  Wilhelm's interest in Hamlet and Shakespeare serves as a kind of peg for part of the way.

The discourse is given added authenticity because the novel was composed at the time when societal and cultural ferment was acute.  This is not some idealized, misty-eyed historical novel.  This sense of realism is accentuated by the fact that the ideas do not protrude forcefully from the narrative, but tend to blend quite seamlessly into the flow of the text.  I found this to be the case especially with the gentle commentary concerning the class structures of those times.

An intriguing aspect of this novel which recurs throughout is the scrutiny of the concepts of Fate and Destiny, as they were up against notions of reason and the idea of making one's own "luck". I related sharply to the parts of the story which stressed the value of falling back on something less exalted and fanciful, and of guarding against unrealistic aspirations in life.

Women play a prominent role throughout the story, especially assertive, educated females from affluent or intellectual backgrounds. I'm not sure whether Goethe was trying to make a point in this regard, but it does endow the novel with an added dimension, and was perhaps intended as subtle social commentary.

The opening chapters engender an immersive and stimulating atmosphere, and before long I found myself genuinely caring about many of the characters and their fortunes, and also identifying with their feelings and their dilemmas. Goethe does seem to have that facility to tug at the heart-strings, and it is displayed most pointedly in the passages which deal with Wilhelm's romantic and emotional entanglements and upheavals.  His alternating anguish and ebullience certainly struck a chord.

This is one of those novels which may reveal its true and full depth with repeated readings. The intricacies of the plot and the subtleties of the characterizations may thereby be more vividly illustrated. Importantly, it has some instructive things to say about how we should improve ourselves and enrich our lives, through activity and cultivating a curiosity about the outside world, rather than lingering in introspection.

Quite a long haul, this one, but a rewarding one, and I can readily see how it has been quite influential down the decades.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Pink Floyd

Recently I was listening to some of the music of Pink Floyd, and I came to reflect on how my perception of the group has developed over the years.

When I was growing up, I had not even heard of Pink Floyd, because they were not a "singles band". It was only when "Another Brick In The Wall" ascended the British charts that I really became aware of their existence. I thought that they must be some mysterious newcomers, although looking back their music scarcely conveyed that impression.

In my early adolescence I purchased "The Dark Side Of The Moon" on vinyl. Until then, the more cerebral echelons of rock music had been largely alien to me.  Perhaps because some of the lyrical content was beyond my youthful comprehension, the record proved a disappointment, as I focused primarily on the musical content, and the relative absence of instrumental virtuosity puzzled me. To me, the album failed to match up to the mythology which had grown to surround it in my mind.

Further down the road, with a more widely developed sense of discernment, I was able to appreciate "Dark Side" and their other celebrated works, including the material from the Syd Barrett era. I could never really get into the albums which followed "The Wall". The music to me had become overly ponderous, and some of the lyrics excessively earnest. Some edge was also lost with the departure of Roger Waters.

Even in their most creative and cogent phases, Floyd were treading a fine line, between leaving much to the imagination of the listener, and straying into too grandiose and preachy an approach. An air of mystery worked best, and this was sometimes lost when the message grew too literal. Half of the fun and the challenge is working out "what are they really getting at here?".  Such an effect is more readily accomplished when sufficient remains unsaid.

I consider that Floyd were at their most vital and compelling when their songs induced feelings both of uneasiness and curiosity, in their capacity to lay bare the raw essence of the human condition - "Wish You Were Here", "Us And Them", "The Great Gig In The Sky".

"The Dark Side Of The Moon" succeeded because it examined the whole gamut of the human experience (death, time, money, insanity, war etc). It was not a stunningly original idea, but it was more grounded and concentrated than the average concept album of the time, and they pulled it off with a collection of concise, poetic and affecting statements. It was profound, but coherently realized and accessible, distilling the often strident statements of Seventies rock down into something which sounded convincing, sincere and digestible.

A thing which I have found over the years is that Pink Floyd's music, or at least some portions of it, have an appeal to those people who would otherwise have little truck with progressive rock or "album" rock. Perhaps the topics of alienation and despair, and the anti-authoritarian outlook, have led such individuals to embrace their work, and deem it credible and "cool".  "The Wall" in particular appears to have drawn in quite a broad constituency.

Although their 1970s releases tend to garner the most attention and airplay, some of their most intriguing and influential work can be found on those albums which came in between the Barrett epoch and the "classic" years.  Records such as "Meddle" and "Ummagumma" are well worth checking out. I know that some people still think that "Bike" is their masterpiece. I find it increasingly difficult to disagree; it is a perfect slice of English psychedelia!

It is also worth noting that Pink Floyd's influence, in a way, has burned rather strongly over the past decade or two, through various groups consisting of serious young men with big statements to make.