Tag Archives: German

LIST CANDIDATE: DER BUNKER (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Daniel Fripan, Oona von Maydell, David Scheller

PLOT: A Student takes a room with a family who lives in a remote bunker and is convinced to become tutor to the very strange son, Klaus, by his even stranger parents.

Still from Der Bunker (2015)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: What is it about German movies starting with “Der” and starring Pit Bukowski? On the heels of Der Samurai comes another strange, psychosexual cry from the German underground, this one based around twisted familial dynamics rather than repressed homosexuality. Der Bunker doesn’t quite hit a home run at writer/director Nikias Chryssos‘s first time at bat, but it lands solidly on base, with more than enough surprises to keep lovers of the weird glued to the screen. It’s the kind of debut that makes you suspect great things may come from these quarters in the future. If Der Bunker is the foundation, we can’t wait to see what Chryssos will build once he gets some funds to work with. Get in on the ground floor.

COMMENTS: I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprises hiding in Der Bunker. The film keeps Klaus hidden in the opening reels; he’s first seen in a longshot at the breakfast table. The next time we glimpse him—which is the first time the Student sees him—he is kept in the shadows. Later we only catch sight of him sitting in the corner, or see him from behind in his too-small pajamas, sleeping or brushing his teeth. It’s not until about the 18-minute mark that we get a good look at Klaus. Mother, too, keeps her secrets under wraps until the film’s musty atmosphere has had some time to seep in to the viewer’s consciousness. That means that Der Bunker‘s opening belongs to Student Pit Bukowski—the intruder/hostage from the world outside the bunker—and to Father David Scheller, who serves as a sort of butler who slowly acclimates us to the oddities lurking in the family cellar.

With only four characters (not counting Heinrich, about whom the less said the better) in a single claustrophobic setting, Der Bunker relies on its actors to have any chance of success. Fortunately, they do not let us down. Bukowski, whose last role was a mystical transvestite samurai, proves that he can play a straight lead as well as the eccentric, leaving the scene-stealing to others while serving instead as the audience’s surrogate. Scheller, playing Father, is the comic relief: with his spindly build and mustache his physically recalls a Teutonic it’s like seeing Basil Fawlty show up in Dogtooth. He’s an affable host who washes his new tenant’s feet, but who also keeps a ledger of each individual dumpling his lodger eats. Although Father is the first member of the family the Student encounters, it gradually appears that Mother (Oona von Maydell) wears the pants in the family. A perfectly pale and prim domestic type on the surface, she is gradually revealed to be disturbed, deformed, desirable and manipulative, an Oedipal puppeteer who is perhaps a puppet herself. As 8-year old (?) Klaus, Daniel Fripan, in a blond bowl haircut, gets the plum role. The poor boy is sympathetic as only an underdeveloped child can be: his parents envision him as a future President, despite the fact that he cannot remember a single world capital. A product of a parental love and ambition so overwhelming that it has the same effect as neglect, he’s so doggedly unremarkable that he becomes unforgettable, and the friendship that develops between he and the Student is as touching as it is strange.

As a child, staying over at a friend’s house for the first time is always a slightly weird experience. The wallpaper is different, meal times and bedtimes are all wrong, and your friend’s mom collects strange figurines. You suddenly realize that there are other ways of doing things than the way your family has always done them, that there are other styles of parenting besides the one you are accustomed to. Der Bunker might be a grown up take on that experience, except that in the Student’s case, the whole adventure is not just a sleepover novelty—through adult eyes, he can see that the way this family goes about its business is not just different, but wrong. Der Bunker is a joke on the insularity of the nuclear family and its impenetrability to the outsider. It’s a joke that naturally turns into a nightmare, because even if you’ve been taken into someone else’s home, you’re not really a part of it—unless you adjust to their customs, which can be, let’s say, stressful.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Der Bunker lets you interpret the film’s meaning yourself, but even if you come up blank, the ride is a bizarre enough oddity to keep you wanting more.”–Matt Donato, We Got This Covered (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE NEVERENDING STORY (1984)

Die Unendliche Geschichte

“I was doing a tattoo in Seattle, and a girl came in and had the whole side of her buttcheek was the Auryn. So she pulled her pants off and asked if she could get a picture with me next to the Auryn, so I stuck my head right next to her butt.”–Noah Hathaway, star of The NeverEnding Story and tattoo artist, on the nexus of his past and current lives

DIRECTED BY: Wolfgang Petersen

FEATURING: Noah Hathaway, Barret Oliver, Tami Stronach, voice of Alan Oppenheimer

PLOT: An orphaned boy discovers an epic story about a young hero’s quest to find the cure for a mysterious force that is destroying the kingdom and killing a princess, only to discover that he is more integral to the story’s outcome than he had imagined.

Still from The Neverending Story (1984)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A fantastical milieu is always good for unusual characters and settings, and the story’s propensity for bleak and even nihilistic ideas goes well beyond the usual expectations for “children’s fare.” However, the weirdness is mostly concentrated in the Mobius strip plot (which inspires the title), making the film primarily weird for the sake of itself.

COMMENTS: Director Wolfgang Petersen parlayed his success directing the global smash Das Boot into a seat at the helm of this movie, which would wrap as the most expensive film in German history. As regards what’s up on the screen, it shows. In our CGI-rich present, the effects may appear dated, but they are surprisingly effective and charming. Petersen creates a fully-realized fantasy world, from the crystalline castle of Fantasia to the dour Swamp of Sadness. The stop-motion, animatronic, and puppeteered creatures are also quite spectacular, with the fatalistic Rockbiter and the treacherous Gmork coming across as especially believable.

All those expensive special effects mean that the burden of acting falls almost entirely upon the two child leads. Noah Hathaway (previously sighted as Boxey on the original Battlestar Galactica series) is particularly strong, doing his best hero’s quest despite being prepubescent. Barret Oliver (soon to be seen as D.A.R.Y.L.) has a harder time, since so much of his role involves reacting to reading. He’s acting by himself opposite events happening to other people, which turns out to be at the heart of the movie’s bait-and-switch.

The true weirdness of The NeverEnding Story lies in this ultimate twist: the Nothing, an encroaching void that is destroying the world of Fantasia, is the personification of the apathy of a disinterested human readership, and the world can only be saved by the imagination of Bastian, the boy who stole and is now reading this very story about how the world is dying because he’s not imagining the story. It’s hardly a coincidence that the hero’s amulet, the Auryn, is a double ourobouros. The movie itself tells us that there is no real world/fantasy world dichotomy to unpack; it’s all fantasy, feeding upon itself. Which certainly goes a long way to explaining some of the story’s more puzzling mysteries, such as why Bastian’s unsympathetic, egg-swilling father (a very grim cameo by future Major Dad Gerald McRaney) isn’t out scouring the city looking for his son in the midst of a storm hours after he should have come home from school.

(Evidently, that metatextual mindplay is an even greater component in the source material. The movie draws on roughly the first half of Michael Ende’s novel, and the author was so incensed by the adaptation that he sued twice: first to stop the production, and then to have his name removed).

Ultimately, the film has major problems articulating what is really important. Characters are introduced only to have no impact on the story at all. A major death is wrung out for every tear it can muster before we’ve ever had a chance to meet the character or understand his importance to the hero. And the ending is a borderline travesty. Given the awesome power to create worlds, the most Bastian can think to do is turn the tables on his bullies and torment them in return. It’s an ending that works (my son laughed uproariously), but it doesn’t fit the philosophical, high-minded tone of all that has come before. Which is perhaps why it’s best to assume that the story never really ended.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… comes off as a Reading Rainbow episode covering existentialism… The NeverEnding Story’s virtues derive in part from its weirdness and uncompromising tone. Much of children’s entertainment instructs about self-actualization, but rarely is the message realized in a manner as respectful of its young audience’s intelligence.”
Mark Pfeiffer, Reel Times: Reflections on Cinema

CAPSULE: GERMAN ANGST (2015)

DIRECTED BY: , Michal Kosakowski, Andreas Marschall

FEATURING: Lola Gave, Axel Holst, Michael Zenner

PLOT: In Berlin, a young girl who lives alone with her guinea pig commits a vile act of barbarism, a deaf couple is assaulted by racist hooligans, and a man descends into dangerous sexual depravity.

Still from German Angst (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Adroit, repugnant, diverse, and surprisingly psychedelic, German Angst delivers some nasty weirdness, but its potential to earn a place on the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made is hampered by inconsistency. The interconnected sections deliver brutal and heady gore/sci-fi combos, but only the final section of this three-part anthology produces the kind of potent, tantalizing content found in true weird contenders.

COMMENTS: Gutten Tag, Herr veirdos! Deutschland’s recent horror export, German Angst, is a powerful example of a radically uninhibited artistic endeavor. Served on three separate but interlocking platters, the third course surpasses the first two by offering genuine, hypnotic suspense to hammer home a message about unrealistic expectations of sexual pleasure. The hodgepodge of violence with brainy, supernatural exposition evokes strange emotions, but the shocks of the first two portions dampen the sociopolitical and spiritual undertones, rendering it an overbearing torture-fest.

Part one, “Final Girl,” directed by Jörg Buttgereit, is a straightforward shocker featuring a young girl (Lola Gave) who castrates her dad with shears. The plodding pace is unsettling and is heaviest during the loitering close-ups of feet and nostrils. The news broadcasts about global terrorism, while the girl pouts through her own pre-pubescent dissonance in her room filled with stuffed animals and teen magazines. Implications of telepathic soul-swapping accompany the torturous acts, as evidenced by the presence of a mystery man smoking a cigarette, as well as a guinea pig leg amputation that might have some connection to the defiled patriarch. The message (perhaps a statement about diminished human empathy) seems intentionally vague, but gets further diluted by the distraction of witnessing a bound-and-gagged man get his junk snipped off.

The focus on a lack of human empathy in the opening segment smoothly translates into the next movie, “Make a Wish” by Michal Kosakowski. In this act, fascist punks terrorize a deaf and mute Polish couple amidst the squalor of dilapidated German architecture. The terrorized victims transform into the aggressors through a kooky Freaky Friday-style soul-swap that occurs with help from a mysterious medallion. Once again, the graphic, hateful violence deliberately prevents it from being truly weird by invoking a sense of indifference about the characters, regardless of its peculiar supernatural twist. The racist savagery of the second piece feels especially trashy and mean, but some odd fun can be found in the cartoonish acting. The malicious stabbings and rage would be strengths in the torture porn genre, but here, presented with an exaggerated sense of nauseating discomfort, they end up dulling the more subtle ideas.  A prime example is the line: “Let’s waste them and grab a pint, yeah?” delivered by of one of the hooligans.  It’s primitive and crass. It’s a shame that more time wasn’t spent exploring the mystical talisman aspect.

Even less restraint is shown in the third and final act, “Alraune,” directed by Andreas Marschall, which features a genuinely intriguing premise involving a privileged photographer who can’t resist the pleasures of a creepy, drug-fueled sex club.  After hitting a bong load of strange herbs, the photographer (Milton Welsh) is blindfolded and experiences complete sexual elation (peep his rising nipple hairs)—the catch being he’s not allowed to see what’s happening. After curiosity gets the best of him, he descends into his own depravity in a truly horrifying way. With the ian suspense, a sprightly dance-club scene, and—just in case you haven’t had your fill—more genital chopping, this third section is a near-perfect example of List-candidate material and has a whopper of a finale that will induce sinister grins from weird movie lovers. The reason why “Alraune” is particularly tolerable in spite of its grossness is similar to the reason why rapper Danny Brown is tolerable in spite of his misogyny; the material is so cleverly absurd that it’s not even offensive.

During the course of German Angst, people’s faces get smashed in with blunt objects, babies are killed, genitals are severed, and a man gets raped by an alien. It’s quite an original horror film with some redemptive angles such as the mystery medallion concept, oddly penetrating guinea pig close-ups, and druggy alien sex-club. Unfortunately, overall these concepts can’t overcome the shocking, nihilistic carnage. It would be wise to consider the movie’s most vital message: don’t do ANY online dating in Europe.  Auf Wiedersehen!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This year, the International Film Festival Rotterdam has dedicated a section of its programme to surrealism, and questioning reality in cinema. The horror anthology German Angst is part of this section, and it’s a valid choice, as each of the three stories in the film deals with possible alternate explanations of a shown reality… [it] mostly works well, both as a set of individual episodes and as a whole film. You will need a tough stomach though, some patience, and possibly a thick skin as well.”–Ard Vijn, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

CAPSULE: LOOK WHO’S BACK (2015)

Er ist Wieder da

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Oliver Masucci, Fabian Busch, Franziska Wulf

PLOT: After a seven-decade hiatus, Adolf Hitler returns to Berlin, emerging alive from his cremation pit outside his erstwhile bunker to take modern Germany by storm when he’s mistaken for a comedian.

Still from Look Who's Back (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Comedies focusing on Adolf Hitler have been around since at least 1940, and have been a part of cinema in fits and starts ever since. Look Who’s Back is the latest film taking a jaded view of the whole Hitler phenomenon. It is often funny and sometimes thought-provoking, but far from weird.

COMMENTS: Look Who’s Back is a series of gambles. It aims to be a buddy comedy. It includes filmed interactions with real people. It uses the medium of film to satirize the more popular media of television and the internet. It takes on the wimps and bullies of modern politics using a mid-20th-century perspective. And, of course, the biggest gamble is the man providing that perspective: Adolf Hitler. One has to judge a movie like this on whether these gambles pay off. Do they? Mostly.

Adolf Hitler (Oliver Masucci) remains an undaunted version of his old self. Anyone who’s seen Downfall (or otherwise knows a bit of history) will recognize the strange mix of unflappability and histrionics that defined the 20th-century’s most notorious figure. Upon awakening amidst a puff of smoke, the erstwhile Führer assesses his situation. Surrounded by buildings and prosperity, as well as all manner of ethnicities, he keeps his cool as he makes his way to a newspaper stand. As Hitler finds his footing, a hapless loser of a freelance newsman, Fabian Sawatzki (Fabian Busch), becomes his guide. Together in a flower van borrowed from Sawatzki’s mother, they tour the country: interacting with locals, taking in the scenery, and having a bad run-in with a dog breeder (something that comes back to haunt them). Clips of Hitler’s shenanigans go viral, he lands a number of TV gigs, and becomes a media sensation.

Look Who’s Back is at its finest in the first half as a whimsical buddy comedy. The unlikely chemistry of Masucci’s Hitler and Busch’s Sawtzki is humorous and touching. As bombastic as he ever was, Hitler waxes grandiloquent; Sawatzki, while listening to and showing off his find, can barely believe that such a man could exist now, much less ever. In their way, they’re cute together. This chemistry gets put to the side during the second half, when things get a bit too Network-y. A TV studio picks up the act, and all the points made in the classic 1976 satire about the evils of pursuing ratings are rehashed, spiced up with YouTube and social media jabs. It seems that the modern world can accept a crazy racist with charisma; a line is crossed, however, when the truth about the dog comes out.

Running close to two hours, Look Who’s Back tries to cover a lot of ground. Its biggest gamble pays off to such an extent that whenever Hitler is not on screen, the movie sags. A couple of sub-plots involving machinations at the TV studio and Sawatzki’s romantic pursuit of a secretary (Franziska Wulf) seem tacked on and make for some cumbersome dead time. Look Who’s Back would have done better as a television show: this masterful Hitler impersonator roaming Germany and interacting with unsuspecting civilians could have made for a biting series à la Sacha Baron Cohen (whose antics this Hitler probably would have liked). As it stands, it’s definitely worth a view, but you may find yourself in the uncomfortable position of wanting more Führer for your time.

Look Who’s Back is not currently on DVD in North America—although a German Region B Blu-ray with English subtitles is available—but it was streaming on Netflix at the time of this writing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Masucci is well-chosen, but the film would have benefited from a much shorter, focused narrative.”–Stepahn Hedmark, “Thrill Me Softly”

CAPSULE: SCHRAMM (1993)

Schramm: Into the Mind of a Serial Killer

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Florian Koerner von Gustorf,

PLOT: Life ebbs from the body of Lothar Schramm after a fatal fall from a ladder. Memories of murders, self-loathing, hallucinations, and his love for his next door neighbor blink on and off the screen. What starts with the death of a murderer becomes a portrait of a grisly, nuanced soul.

Still from Schramm: Into the Mind of a Serial Killer (1993)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As with his previous film, Der Todesking, Buttgereit somehow manages to ride the crest between gore and philosophy, making Schramm considerably more meditative than would be expected. Its (now) familiar “mind of a serial killer” theorizing does result in the occasional shock, but it certainly isn’t the weirdest thing you could see before breakfast.

COMMENTS: There is something to be said for efficient film-making. So often it seems the case that a director wants his or her film to go on for as long as it takes to say everything about its subject. Sprawling movies abound; some peter out, some take forever to find their target, and the worst neither gain momentum nor really tell much of a story. Such a curse is not suffered by Jörg Buttgereit, the affable German behind the underground horror hits Nekromantik (1 and 2), Der Todesking, and, the last feature of his early career, Schramm. In a tight sixty-five minutes, Buttergereit explores the final thoughts and days of the titular serial killer.

Schramm’s chronology is only slowly revealed, beginning, effectively, at the end of the story. Suffering a fall while painting a blood-spattered door frame, Lothar Schramm (Florian Koerner von Gustorf) collapses in the spilt paint, and time slowly rewinds. Our first living encounter with him shows him dispatching two altogether wholesome evangelizers. An impatient woman knocks on the door. Eventually things sift back further and we see what are likely childhood memories, interspersed with the scenes from the days immediately preceding the fall. Schramm’s manner and actions may now seem typical, but in 1992 (the year Schramm was filmed), the precarious mental state of a rather off-kilter man was quite a bit fresher. (As Buttgereit remarks in his charmingly cute introduction, the reason he made this film was he was tired of watching “chain-smoking detectives pursuing the serial killer”, instead of seeing things from the other side.)

As I mentioned, the film is brief. However, it gets everything done that it needs to in the run-time. In what has become almost standard in the genre, Schramm is a generally low-key, pleasant guy who enjoys jogging and chatting with his next-door neighbor (Monika M.), a prostitute who relies on him for company and, later, protection. Stylized flashbacks of murders, a kitchen drawer full of lipstick, and unsettling hallucinations of his own physical deterioration hint at his mental imbalance. (Taking a cat-nap in his taxi, he dreams about a dental appointment for a tooth removal that quickly escalates into an eye removal). While he’s keeping busy with loneliness and killing prostitutes, his neighbor gets herself involved with some rather demanding and unsavory older clients.

There is certainly a fair share of repellent material in Schramm, but anyone familiar Buttgereit’s work should be unsurprised. However, unlike the gross-out tours-de-force of his Nekromantik films, Schramm is more the sibling of his pensive work, Der Todesking. The violent scenes in Schramm are sparingly scattered, and all the more troubling for so being. With this release (and the upcoming über Buttgereit set), the people at Cult Epics have made available a neat little treasure that not only illustrates why this director deserves (a little) greater fame, but also that underground cinema has more to offer the public than just cheap thrills.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has ‘fans only’ written all over it… Using out-of-date experimental means (repetition and color distortion), Buttgereit tries to put the audience into the killer’s mind, and probably gets as close as a director with limited means can.”–Eric Hansen, Variety (contemporaneous)

THE SHORT FILMS OF OLIVER HERRMAN

was quickly proving to be an artist of provocative potential after creating the innovative short films “Dichterlieb” (2000), “One Night, One Life” (2002), and “Le Sacre du Printemps” (released 2004). Tragically, Herrmann’s life and career were cut short when he died of a diabetic stroke at the age of 40 in 2003.  A few months after his death, his partner, soprano , a specialist in 20th/21st century music, gave birth to their second child.

All three have been released on home video with “Dichterlieb” and “One Night, One Life” available together and “Le Scare du Printemps” on a second DVD. The primary interest in the “One Night, One Life” collection is Herrman’s film of Arnold Shoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” conducted by modern music specialist Pierre Boulez and starring Schäfer. A bit of history may be needed for Schoenberg’s atonal[1], expressionist melodrama. Set to Albert Giraud’s text, the poems, usually spoken by a soprano, are delivered in “Sprechgesang” (spoken singing). Upon its 1912 premiere, “Pierrot Lunaire” predictably offended the traditionalists. Much publicity was made about it, mostly bad, but at least this was a period when new music and new composers actually grabbed headlines. As late as the 1970s, conservative NY Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg claimed that “Pierrot Lunaire”‘s’ failure to enter the standard repertoire was an indictment of contemporary music. Yet, the 21st century has (somewhat) rendered Schonberg’s assessment as premature. If not quite part of the daily repertoire diet, “Lunaire” is extensively recorded and performed. One might envision it someday becoming as commonplace as Beethoven. However, together, Herrmann, Boulez, and Schäfer produce a commendable effort to rectify its potentially harmful respectability. The proof is in the pudding as far as music forum reviews go, with the hopelessly puritan music fans expressing outrage towards Herrmann’s blasphemous filming of music that was labeled blasphemous in 1912. One would think, with the combination of Schoenberg, Boulez, Herrmann, and Schäfer, blasphemy would and should be expected. Schoenberg is a composer who was and remains spiritually antithetical to the tenets of fundamentalism, and yet, long dead in his grave, he holds no sway with that lot. Fortunately, the principals speak blasphemy fluently and refuse to appease those who prefer art-music to be neutered, polished, and pedestaled. Schoenberg’s sense of danger is not only intact, but expanded upon.

Still from Pierrot Lunaire (2002)The haunting lyrics are besotted with imagery of sick moons, flowing blood, brandished swords, gruesome communion, blue murder, bloodied crosses, ancient gloom, one-legged storks, coffins, and giant black butterflies ready for the kill. It’s hardly “La Boheme,” Continue reading THE SHORT FILMS OF OLIVER HERRMAN

  1. Although atonal, “Pierrot Lunaire” does not employ the twelve tone method. []

CAPSULE: THE ENIGMA OF KASPAR HAUSER (1974)

Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (Every Man for Himself and God Against All)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Walter Ladengast, Willy Semmelrogge

PLOT: After nearly two decades growing up in a basement cell, Kaspar Hauser is abandoned in the town square of a nearby village. Illiterate and knowing virtually no words, the man is adopted by the townsfolk, first by the town jailer and then by a local professor who finds him on display at a fair. As his awareness of this new world grows, Kaspar becomes increasingly disenchanted with his surroundings.

Still from The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the story is based on an historical oddity that morphed into something of a legend, the movie structure, flow, and presentation are conventional. The tragedy of Kaspar Hauser is rather weird, but Herzog tells his tale through traditional storytelling methods.

COMMENTS: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser proves that the young Werner Herzog had the golden touch. It could be argued he single-handedly launched the volatile to art-house superstardom with the success of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Right on that movie’s heels, he cooked up a heartwarming tragedy for the then-very-unknown street performer, Bruno S. In the titular role in  Kaspar Hauser, Herzog directs the non-actor in a performance that is moving, amusing, and, most impressively, believable.

Herzog took the historical but semi-legendary story of Kaspar Hauser at face value. The movie begins, as with so many Herzog pictures, with shots of mesh-enveloped nature. As in Aguirre, an informative title card is presented to provide the viewer with background—in this case, ironically, to introduce him to the protagonist’s lack of background. Having spent all his formative years from birth locked in a dimly lit cellar, with only one man’s company (limited to feeding time and perhaps cleanings), Kaspar Hauser has no basis for experience other than four walls, a straw covered floor, bread, water, and a wheeled toy horse. For unknowable reasons, one day the captor releases Kaspar and then ditches him, standing in a daze with a letter in hand, in the center of a prosperous 19th century German town.

The truly blank slate of Kaspar allows Herzog to force the audience to observe mankind from the character’s detached perspective. The town is bewildered by Kaspar’s presence and lack of interactivity. The authorities, one of whom is an excitable clerk keen on getting everything recorded in his reports, are officious, slightly suspicious, but ultimately kind. The children of the jail keeper teach Kaspar all they can. When the town government are irked at the stranger, they force him to act as one of the “Four Riddles of the Spheres at a town fair. Kaspar engineers an escape for himself and the three other “riddles,” only to be found later in an apiary by a kindly professor. Things do get better for Kaspar, but also worse.

The movie is sprinkled with amusing moments, largely observational oddities from the unworldly Kaspar, but it is ultimately a tragedy. Throughout, Herzog’s camera digresses into gossamer fields, dunes, and water. These signature shots ably convey Kaspar’s sense of wonder, but also his detachment from the world in which he finds himself. Near the beginning, he lightly sobs to the jail keeper’s wife,  “Mother, I am so far from everything”; later, he remarks to the professor, “It seems to me that my coming into this world was a very hard fall.” At a sort of “coming out” party put on for a visiting prat of a nobleman, he glibly tells the assembled bourgeois gawkers that life was better for him in his cell.

Kaspar Hauser has many moments of quiet beauty to behold, and Herzog further demonstrates his mastery of his craft with this addition to his oeuvre. The reality it creates is as wondrous and sad as the reality Kaspar experiences when he finally gains his bearings.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In Herzog the line between fact and fiction is a shifting one. He cares not for accuracy but for effect, for a transcendent ecstasy… The last thing Herzog is interested in is ‘solving’ this lonely man’s mystery. It is the mystery that attracts him.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: HEART OF GLASS (1976)

Herz aus Glas

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Josef Bierbichler, Sonja Skiba, Stefan Güttler

PLOT: A Bavarian town at the beginning of the 19th century loses its master glassblower, the creator of a prized ruby-red glass. As the town’s lifeblood dissipates, the population goes mad, with a shepherd the only voice of reason remaining untouched by the malaise.

Still from Heart of Glass (1976)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: In Heart of Glass, Herzog captures the effect of an entire town losing its mind. By hypnotizing virtually every actor, the dreaminess of the shots melds with the action of the citizens, creating a dark, dreamworld effect. The most grounded character, Hias, is a seer of visions both immediate and far flung—and he is the village’s only grip on reality.

COMMENTS: This pensive movie begins with a rear-shot of a man looking over a herd of cows. His first words are in voiceover, played against grand scenes of waterfalls and nature: “I look into the distance, to the end of the world. Before the day is over, the end will come.” This seer (Joseph Bierbichler) is named Hias, and he is a shepherd of a nearby Bavarian village. A group of townsmen come to him with words of fear: “the time of giants has returned.” Their town has just lost its legendary glassblower, and as the seer predicts, the end comes to them before the day is out.

Herzog’s Heart of Glass maintains the unearthly, disconnected tone that is set up in the opening shots throughout. Under the spell of hypnosis, the actors portraying the townspeople all behave as if they are several shifts from reality. The worst affected is the town’s magistrate, a man of means who, used to the great wealth the glass export brought in, crumbles when it is lost. First, he insists the glassblower’s house be dismantled and foundation dug up, just in case the secret formula is hidden therein. He demands the seizure of a davenport that the craftsman had given to his mother, in case the solution is to be found inside. He laments, “the untidiness of the stars makes my head ache.” The tragedy has no explanation in earthly logic, and the whole town faces their doom with such disbelief that no one can now seem to think for himself.

Events take an increasingly desperate turn. As predicted by Hias, one of a pair of friends dies breaking the fall of the other. A plan is hatched that all the remaining ruby glass is to be thrown into the lake, to make it turn red. Eventually there is murder and arson as the magistrate—the throbbing head of the hive-mind that’s taken over the populace—goes to greater and greater extremes to bring the secret back from the void into which it has slipped. Hias sees this, and laments, but cannot stop what occurs. During an enigmatic scene in the village tavern, he sits flanked by a white hen and a dancing simpleton, and prophesies far into the future, seeing World War I, World War II, and eventually nuclear annihilation: “…where the black box drops, green and yellow dust arises.”

Heart of Glass ends on an allegorical note. Having fled the doomed town, Hias returns to his beloved woods. Traveling through the primordial forest, he seems at one with it—until he peers into a dark cave. He goes into a fit and, upon recovery, has another of his visions. He sees two islands, “on the fringes of existence,” that have no other human contact, and do not know the earth is round. After years of spying the horizon, a man and his followers take off on a tiny craft to head toward the abyss. “It may have been seen as a sign of hope,” Hias intones, “that the birds followed them out into the vastness of the sea.” Change is terrifying, but it is also the only way forward.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The elusiveness of ‘Heart of Glass’ makes it something of a disappointment. But it is too mysteriously lovely to be regarded as a failure.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: STROSZEK (1977)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Eva Mattes, Clemens Scheitz

PLOT: When his elderly landlord suggests that he, recently-released prisoner Bruno, and their mutual friend Eva escape to America, the trio head to Railroad Flats, Wisconsin; there, they start living the American Dream, only to have it reposessed.

Still from Stroszek (1977)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The unlikely plot, combined with the unlikely locales (Berlin and the fictional “Railroad Flats”), further combined with unlikely leads (mostly non-actors) results in a strange story—but not-so-strange a movie. The tale being told is a weird one; the movie itself is a (commendably) straightforward telling of it.

COMMENTS: As road movies go, this one is quite the odd duck. This is, of course, to be expected from one of the great oddball directors of the ’70s and ’80s (the reliably offbeat Werner Herzog) who concocted this film specifically for one of the great eccentrics of the last century, the vagrant/street-performer/poet/musician/non-actor known as Bruno S. Like the lead, most of the characters are played by people who did not act for a living, and as such they give their story a layer of truthfulness.

In fact, much of the movie has a documentary vibe. Straight-forward mise-en-scène, realistic lighting, medium shots, and even occasional glances at the camera from Bruno all combine to provide a sensation one is watching, as it were, a “movie-movie” as it flows in and out of a “documentary movie”. Various avenues are explored by this non-documentary: alienation, family, emotional and physical survival, but most of all, the American Dream. The simple joys of this dream, however, quickly give way to the grinding vexations of bleak reality. Toward the end of the movie, Bruno makes a telling remark as he listens to an English conversation he doesn’t understand. He mutters, “I’m really pessimistic about all this.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As a man seemingly transplanted from another time (if not another world), Bruno S. copes with his surroundings as ably as his innocence allows. The audience first meets him when he’s being released from jail, imprisoned for unspecified “alcohol-related crimes.” He has only two friends: his landlord, Clemens Scheitz, who not only kept Bruno’s room as he left it but also watched after his Myna bird; and Eva, a much-abused prostitute who may or may not be Bruno’s lover. In Berlin, their lives are semi-tragic but comfortingly mundane. Once in America, Bruno doesn’t so much eventually “lose it” as much as he realizes as there isn’t really any place for him to quietly exist. As events unfold, his American experiences become increasingly strange, until everything unravels. His home is repossessed by the world’s friendliest banker, his old friend goes around the bend and gets arrested, and he himself ends up being hunted by the police. His escape through the most crudely conceived tourist attraction imaginable—which includes not only a “Fire Chief” rabbit but also two (2!) musical chickens—stands as one of Herzog’s stranger set-pieces.

Both location and society seem out to get our endearing protagonist. In the film’s first half, his environment conspires to force him to flee his home; in the film’s second half, it conspires to take away the only people he cares about. Somehow, Herzog makes great swaths of the movie either hilarious or just plain delightful to watch. While a happier trajectory for the film would have been enjoyable, Herzog’s nuanced cynicism makes the film, for all its eccentricity, feel very real.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the oddest films ever made.”–Roger Ebert, Great Movies series