Tag Archives: German

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

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)