Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cinema's Naughtiest Germans, Part Two


The best aspect of this strange tale of German gymnasium girls--torn apart by conflicting development rates-- are the two actresses, one of whom, Karoline Herfurth, looks a bit like Liv Ullman. She plays Steffi, the poutier of the pair, while the radiant and very German looking Anna Maria Muhe plays Kati, her more "normal" friend. Whenever the film is focused on either of their faces, it’s fascinating as they are natural actors who--like real teenagers do-- hide as much from the camera as they show, even if they don’t deliver the powerhouse performances of Oscar-minded Americanische jungen.

On one of the girls' nights out they wind up being picked up by two older men and brought over to a "grown ups" lounge. In Germany, kids can enter bars and drink without i.d.s, making this an interesting contrast with the forbidden, glamorized nature of drinking in typical American teen films, though this environment is still seen as adulthood ground zero, full of sex, drugs, music and disillusionment. Among the disillusioning sights: Steffi's dad, making out on a couch with a woman not her mom and--even worse--the woman is East German! Steffi and Kati key woman's car, track her down to a shitty East Berlin tenement, and then Steffi proceeds to trick the woman's teenage daughter (Josephine Domes) into auditioning at a modeling agency which specializes in adult videos, under the pretext that it’s a record company (knowing from personal embittered experience the owner is a sex predator). Mein Gott! Are Germans really so vindictive that they would want to send girls they don't even know to their death? Oh wait! Of course they are! Was eine unheimliche frage!

Meanwhile another cute blonde girl has disappeared and the whole city is up in arms. Only Steffi knows the truth, and she's too self-absorbed over her dad’s divorce to consider that the psycho killer who almost raped Kati could be behind it. It's as if city-wide manhunts ala Fritz Lang's M were something a teenager would barely notice compared to her own petulant sulking. It really becomes Kati's movie as she must stand up to Steffi, who by this point is snorting coke, sleeping around, and not going to class. Eventually it all boils down to suicide and self-cutting, but along the way there’s lots of music sung in English, and everyone seems to be bilingual. B


Based on a true story, this is a nice mix of WW2 period craftsmanship and forbidden love that makes most life-under-Nazi-rule dramas look like mopey bourgeois white elephant glad-handing tripe. There's more human warmth and joy in three minutes of screen time with this pair of star-crossed lesbians (one Jewish, one "Aryan") then in the whole goddamned three hours of THE READER (2008). Why am I even comparing? Perhaps because many are the films that mix Nazi vs. Jew persecution with forbidden love and sumptuous period decor and wartime lighting schemes, but few are any good, and this one is great, and didn't even get consideration for best foreign film in 1999. It did get nominated for a Golden Globe, Oscar's sleeker more artistically comprehensible, less bourgeois self-congratulatory cousin.

As Felice the Jewish lesbian "hiding in plain sight" as assistant editor of a Nazi newspaper in 1943, Maria Schrader is an absolute knock-out, a jovial gamin who'd be ideal as a cross-dressing Shakespeare heroine, ala Rosalind in AS YOU LIKE IT. We believe her dangerous good cheer because Schrader plays the role with a fearless recklessness that perfectly captures our hearts and her character... her decision to risk discovery in order to stay with her Aryan hausfrau lover Lilly (Julianne Kohler) is the most beautifully brave and foolish move since Winslet jumped off the lifeboat in TITANIC (1997). Their love is hot enough that you understand why she makes this suicidal gesture. It's beautiful to be that swept away, like THELMA AND JULIET! Even more startling, the film seems true even as it's completely insane, and still covers all its thematic and narrative bases to leave you profoundly moved. Best of all, sullenly self-righteous books-on-tape artist Ralph Fiennes is nowhere to be found. A

(AKA EUROPA, 1991)

An early Lars Von Trier gem, not quite a masterpiece, perhaps due to lack of star wattage, a killer performance from Ernst-Hugo Jaregard and Udo Kier aside. Von Trier fans know Jaregard best as THE KINGDOM's  Dr. Helmer and Udo Kier from.... well where do you begin? Here he's an ennui-ridden gay brother of femme fatale love interest Barbara Sukowa (LOLA), and maybe a werewolf (in the post-war German terrorist sense). Alas, much screen time is eaten up watching dumbkopf American expatriate Kessler (Hean Marc-Barr) mess things up for his exasperated sleeper car conducting uncle. If you're a fan of trains you don't have to know why Kessler expressly requests the sleeper car. Damn is it sexy there. A giant box full of dreaming passengers, careening along through the Hamburg night, it's an ideal mirror to the audience in a dark theater. But Kessler is like that temp you hire only to have to spend so much time correcting his mistakes you may as well do his job yourself in addition to your own. No doubt Von Trier wanted it this way. He considered this a masterpiece and gave the Cannes jury the finger when he didn't win the Palme d'Or. But Americans don't like seeing Americans portrayed as incompetent patsies by Europeans. We hate that they love Jerry Lewis, or maybe just I do.

Yeah, Von Trier is Danish, but the film's set in post-war Germany so it still counts! Best of all it's got a German message: if you're not fighting to the death for a cause, no matter how doomed, then you're asleep at the wheel and may as well go off the rails. Words to live by, until someone reminds us it's from Mein Kampf.  And the Germans love trains, punctuality and death in equal measure. PS - there actually wasn't too much werewolf activity in Germany aside from some vivid pirate radio shortwave messages, as most of the werewolf engineers fled to Palestine to help organize, you guessed it, anti-Israeli terrorism!  Gott in Himmel! B+

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