Tag Archives: German

DER VERLORENE (THE LOST ONE, 1951)

Peter Lorre is often cited as an example of a superior European actor  who made his way to Hollywood, only to be wasted when Tinseltown didn’t know what to do with him. He had gained worldwide attention for his unnerving performance as the child-murderer in ‘s German production, M (1931). Purportedly, even though Lorre was Jewish, Adolf Hitler loved the film and the actor, inviting Lorre to return to Germany. Lorre allegedly declined by responding that Germany already had one mass murderer too many. It may be an apocryphal story, but Lorre’s image was later used in Third Reich propaganda to depict the depravity of Jews, and his name was discovered to be on Hitler’s hit list.

In Hollywood, Lorre was mostly used as a character actor who could steal a scene from anyone. He only had a handful of starring roles that suited him; a superb Raskolnikov in ‘s Crime and Punishment (1935) and as Robert Florey’s Face Behind the Mask (1941). To most Americans , he is known for appearing in 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor, arguably the first , and for his frequent teaming with co-star Sydney Greenstreet (most memorably in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon).

By the end of the 1940s, Lorre had come to despise the cartoonish roles offered him, along with the erroneous tag as a horror star (his only actual horror film was 1946’s The Beast with Five Fingers). He had long wanted to direct, having learned much from working with Lang, von Sternberg, , , and Bertolt Brecht. Lorre’s continued friendship with Brecht—a rabid anti-Fascist—led to both being interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, as well as a brief stint on the studio blacklist and to his eventually being sacked by Warner Brothers. In 1951, a bankrupt Lorre set his sights on Europe, where he went to direct Der Verlorene (The Lost One) for producer Arnold Pressburger. Lorre also co-scripted a screenplay based loosely on his own novel about the suicide of Dr. Karl Rothe, who headed a research institute within the Third Reich.

Still from Verlorene (The Lost One) (1951)

Germany, still ravaged by Hitler, hardly wanted to be reminded of the Fascist period. The resulting film was a commercial disaster, despite being acclaimed, by the few critics who saw it, as a masterpiece of German cinema. With America deep in its own brand of Fascism (dubbed McCarthyism), Der Verlorene didn’t play in the U.S. Lorre never directed another film and returned to America in defeat, to continue in the caricatured roles Hollywood craved from him. Yet, Continue reading DER VERLORENE (THE LOST ONE, 1951)

CAPSULE: FELIDAE (1994)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Michael Schaack

FEATURING: Voices of Ulrich Tukur, Mario Adorf, Wolfgang Hess, Helge Schneider, Mona Seefried, Klaus Maria Brandauer

PLOT: Francis, a housecat who has relocated to a new neighborhood with his human, stumbles into a mystery involving a strange cult, nefarious characters, and a feline serial killer. Still from Felidae (1994)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although a neo-noir/serial killer story where most, if not all, of the main characters are cats might qualify as “weird”—and, I admit, it’s a mighty thin line—the events and behavior involved aren’t surreal. They are just seen from a different perspective than we’re used to, to force us to consider our own behavior.

COMMENTS: “What I was watching wasn’t exactly a scene out of ‘The Aristocats’.”

Coming after feline members of a cult electrocute themselves in spiritual thrall, that line’s a definite understatement—and a cheekily self-aware one at that. Although the animation style is reminiscent of Don Bluth’s films, Felidae‘s approach to the material is more closely modeled on the adaptations of the Richard Adams novels Watership Down and The Plague Dogs. Perhaps not that surprising, since this story is also based on a literary allegory: in this instance, a book by Akif Pirinçci.

Felidae is a very good pastiche of film noir detective tropes: the dogged investigator, his reluctant friend/sidekick, moronic thugs, the ‘Good Girl’ who becomes a victim and the driving force for the investigator to pursue the case to the end, the ‘Bad Girl’ who appears to be a distraction but ends up being an integral piece of the puzzle, colorful characters adding flavor, and a nemesis who thoroughly pays off on the buildup. It also deals in the dark subject matter of noir: the violence and cruelty of life, religion and how it ends up being a tool of control, grisly farce, and sex… lots of sex. Placing those events in the world of cats, domesticated and feral, just strengthens the critique of human society, and adds another subject to the mixture: animal testing and its cruelty.

When it comes to quality animation intended for an adult audience, you have to look overseas and be prepared to do some digging.  Aside from Japanese anime, a piece in this genre won’t get much exposure to a North American audience except at a few film festivals, if it’s lucky. Felidae would’ve been a tough sell in America; in addition to a serial killer mystery with eugenics being the main key, there’s lots of violence, a sex scene, a couple of standout nightmare set pieces, and graphic depictions of animal experimentation—all with the look of a nice animated film with cats.

Felidae never got a release in North America. Although an English dub was prepared, it was only released in Australia, with the voice cast not credited (the IMDB list for the English voices is highly suspect). There was a R2 DVD release which had both the German and English language tracks, plus extras like a commentary and a “Behind the Scenes” featurette (in German only), but that is now OOP and going for high prices on the secondary market. YouTube searches turn up copies in German with English subs, or the English dubbed version. It would be great if Felidae gets rediscovered and issued on home video like Watership Down and The Plague Dogs were recently.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an imaginative, disturbing and ex-tremely adult thriller… Francis’ violent nightmares provide the most outrageously surreal images since the golden age of Bakshi.”–Stephen Puchalski, Shock Cinema (DVD)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Felidae was scored by Anne Dudley (Art of Noise) and featured a theme song co-written & sung by George O’ Dowd (AKA Boy George), which did get an OST release.

There are eight books in the Felidae series, though only three of the books have been translated to English. The author, Akif Pirinçci, has recently been mired in controversy, which led to both his German & American publishers cancelling his contracts and no longer selling his books. Still from Felidae (1994)

LIST CANDIDATE: LUZ (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tilman Singer

FEATURING: Luana Velis, Jan Bluthardt, Julia Riedler

PLOT: A police psychotherapist gets drunk at a bar with an animated young woman who has recently been thrown out of a cab; back at the station, the young cabbie has turned herself in and the therapist gets summoned to recreate the incident.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Uncanny valley sound design keeps the viewer on the edge of his seat from the start as a barroom encounter, a police procedural, and a car-ride collide together in fits, bursts, and very extreme psychotherapy. This tightly packed little nightmare bursts at the seams with dark visions, psychological overlaps, and camera work that stays on the deeply menacing side of surreal.

COMMENTS: Good luck can play a big part in finding a truly amazing film. My path toward 366 began almost two decades ago when, by chance, I rented The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, & Her Lover from a little VHS rental place near my home. Naturally, being at a film festival like Fantasia, one is engineering the good luck, but I am still thankful (and surprised) that I went, by chance, to the press screening for the new German “psychothriller” (for lack of a better catch phrase) Luz. From the get-go I was glued to my seat; an odd compunction to have when the opening shot is of a bored police officer manning a desk.

The humdrum opening: Dr. Rossini (Jan Bluthardt) is quietly enjoying a drink at a near-empty bar. His pager beeps from time to time, as he is on-call; but he only needs to leave if “there’s an emergency.” One eventually arises, but only after another bar patron, an animatronically-twitchy young woman named Nora (Julia Riedler) gets him drunk. Sloshed, both from the drinks and her bizarre tale about a young woman named Luz (Luana Velis), he needs to get sober—and fast. Jump to the barroom bathroom where Nora seems to shake the drunkenness out of him, imbues him with a golden glow from her throat, and then collapses. Thus mended, off he goes.

Menacing from the start, Luz maintains an incredibly unsettling atmosphere as the police psychologist hypnotizes a very unstable— and very possibly possessed—cab-driver to recreate a fateful car ride. Going to incredible extremes, his analytic work morphs more and more into a violent interrogation-cum-exorcism. Recollection and reality violently collide as Dr. Rossini turns the screws further and further. Memories are impossibly conjured in the police station: Rossini adopts the persona of Nora, bloodying his face and putting on her stolen clothes, and all the while, a poor police translator is locked in a sound booth. Through an impeccably askew  soundscape and the goth-prog-synth score, even the relatively quiet moments pulse unnaturally.

As every faithful reader is aware, this site is cruising along toward “completion” at a very steady clip. With that in mind, I know what a Hail Mary shot this is. And even though the Festival has just begun, I still suspect that this will be hard to top. Using effectively only two sets, Luz crams an amazing amount of nightmarishly surreal drama into just seventy minutes—and Jan Bluthardt’s performance as Dr. Rossini would make both Klaus Kinski and Erwin Leder proud. Presently, I find myself at a loss for words, so I’ll leave this review saying that, due to the review embargo, I’ve had to sit on this for a week before posting it. By the time you read this, I may well have seen it a second time.

CAPSULE: WINGS OF DESIRE (1987)

Der Himmel über Berlin

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk

PLOT: Angels wander around Berlin, able to read people’s thoughts but unable to intervene in their lives aside from providing vague comfort; one decides he wants to become human.

Still from Wings of Desire (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The film is a masterpiece, but scarcely a weird one. It’s few odd points are firmly anchored to its internally logical art-house ambitions.

COMMENTS: The two melancholy angels listen to people’s thoughts. “There’s nothing good on TV.” “How will I ever get a washer and dryer in here?” They envy them: “I’d like to be able to say ‘now’… No longer ‘forever’ and ‘for eternity. I’d like to take the empty seat at a card game…” They follow a retired academic who muses to himself about storytelling; spy on a college student working as a streetwalker; listen to the last thoughts of a motorcycle accident victim and a suicide. They share notes, compiling a record of what it means to be human without being able to feel, to taste. Until, after an hour and a half of this torment, one of them decides to fall… “First, I’ll take a bath. Then get a shave, from a Turkish barber, if possible.”

It’s more involving than it sounds: challenging, but hypnotic. It succeeds brilliantly in its mission to try to get you to focus attention on the small details of life, the things a child notices that your adult brain has learned to ignore. A dreamlike atmosphere pervades a purgatorial Berlin. The cinematography (mostly misty black and white, with color interludes) was courtesy of Henri Alekan, who was nearing 80 at the time. (The director wanted Alekan because he had shot La Belle et la Bete, which Wenders considered the most beautiful black and white film of all time). The music, by Jürgen Knieper, is downbeat celestial, with a choir, harps, and a moaning viola. The two angels (with ponytails) are appropriately ghostly, but the decision to cast Peter Falk as himself, in town to play a role in a historical WWII drama, was a winning gamble. Falk’s partly comic, avuncular persona supplies a New World warmth the solemn Teutonic angels can’t. Falk’s naturalistic “coffee and cigarettes” monologue is one of the most moving humanist statements ever put on film. As life-affirming films go, Wings of Desire succeeds where lesser attempts fail because it recognizes humanity is overflowing with pain, sorrow, and boredom—and, fully acknowledging the cost, gleefully argues that being alive is worth it anyway.

In a bit of irony so cutting it could have come out of a satire, Hollywood bought the rights and remade Wings of Desire—as a sappy, over-explained romance with a pop-rock soundtrack, starring and 90s sweetheart Meg Ryan, helmed by the director of Casper! Where Wings of Desire is about the joy of being human, the misconceived City of Angels demonstrates the shame of the same condition. Even so, Angels is arguably better than Wenders’ own unnecessary Wings sequel, Faraway So Close!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Wings of Desire’ doesn’t release its tension in a smooth plot payoff. It creates a mood of sadness and isolation, of yearning, of the transience of earthly things. If the human being is the only animal that knows it lives in time, the movie is about that knowledge.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times

(This movie was nominated for review by “Brad.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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