A number of great films this month, from Scandinavia to South America: Angels of the Universe, In Your Hands, Olympia, La Ley del Deso, Garage Olimpo – as well as the TV series Stromberg and some other films.
I had wanted to see Englar alheimsins aka Angels of the Universe for ages now and it finally happened. Not only is it an Icelandic film – thus cool by stereotype and ‘the other’ Icelandic film, 101 Reykjavík, vasn’t bad either, though I haven’t seen Nói albínói yet. Even more importantly the film’s music was done by Sigur Rós and Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson.
Unfortunately I wasn’t really impressed by the film’s music. Yet, the film itself wasn’t bad. Actually the main theme isn’t completely unlike that of 101 Reykjavík in that it centres around a not-exactly-young (mid twenties? a bit more perhaps?) who lives with his parents and is into music. He falls in love with a rich girl and once she drops him because he doesn’t fit into her live his mental health goes downhill and he ends up in a mental institution… He gets used to the life there and starts thinking of the life outside as equally mad (and with the extra disadvantage of having to work), so even after being let go, he returns for a second, longer, stay.
Staying with Scandinavian outsiders, there is also Forbrydelser – aka In Your Hands – which isn’t in an Icelandic mental hospital but in a Danish prison. And it’s a Dogme 95 film – number 34 to be precise. And it’s quite a solid one. I still love that special Dogma feel which brings you really close to the films’ characters while they run head-on into their misery.
The film centres around Anna, a priest, who takes up a job in a women’s prison. While everything seems fairly good order in both Anna’s life and the prison – overly positive even as Anna becomes pregnant which she was told she couldn’t before – things slowly start going wrong from there on. One of the prisoners who sensed that she was pregnant to begin is being adored by one of the wardens and Anna’s baby has a chromosome defect, leaving her and her husband the difficult decision to decide whether to take the risk of baby being ill from birth on or to have an abortion.
As in most other Dogma films, things go downhill from there on with nobody being to blame for what happens.
When Leni Riefenstahl died three years ago there were plenty of reports about her life, her cinematographic achievements and her role in Nazi propaganda. And her reputation of being way ahead of her time technically and aesthetically but a bit dodgy for her political position or at least indifference, made me curious to actually see some of her films. I saw parts of her Triumph des Willens a while ago (thanks to the internet – apparently the film is forbidden outside education in Germany because it’s Nazi propaganda) a while ago. And while it had certain modern touches to it, it also contained rather lengthy speeches. Which may be historically significant but didn’t make it a better film.
And when seeing the olympic stadium in Berlin on telly during the recent FIFA world championship, I kept thinking that it’s just a great looking stadium and that it will look even greater in Riefenstahl’s old Olympia films which without doubt would make an effort to let the Nazis look great in their stadium.
Another thing about the Olympia films is that I am not really a big fan of sports. And that puts it mildly. I generally find sports boring to watch. So this ancient sports documentary would be a challenge. But indeed Riefenstahl manages to win that challenge. Particularly the first part – Fest der Völker (Festival of the Nations) – is great. Rather than being a plain documentary which focuses on the results as it is seen today, the film aims to catch the drama of what’s going on: the audiences of the various countries cheering for ‘their’ athletes, athletes being tense before their throw / jump / run / early start, athletes relaxing and enjoying the show while their team mates do the hards work. It really is quite amazing.
And it’s full of great shots and fantastic viewing angles which always try to catch the athletes from below, in slow motion, with some of the audience visible in the background and over long times. You’ll see stunning shots of the pole vault and impressive shots of people collapsing after finishing the marathon and you’ll see a 1500m run filmed in a single shot. Just imagine how amazingly difficult all that is – and how much more it must have been with the technology of 1936!
And in between the sports and the shots of the audiences you’ll also see a few scenes with Hitler in them cheering for the German athletes. But those are surprisingly few. In fact – I first thought that seeing Hitler cheer would be an indication that the German athletes won the competition, there’s the dramatic 4 × 100m relay where it looked like the German team would clearly win and you see Hitler cheering for them… when they lose the baton. Well, guess whose ‘Führer’ looked a bit disappointed then.
In addition the film also focuses on documentation in the sense that wins of non-German athletes aren’t censored. You can see the Stars and Stripes, Union Jack and many others along with their national anthems loads of times during the film. (And perhaps it’s the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, but in direct comparison even the flag the Nazis had looks wrong enough to tell that they weren’t any good…)
My inner graphics geek was also amazed to look at the display technology of that age in the stadium. These days we’re just used to have huge electronic displays. But what did they do in those old days? I hadn’t really thought about that… but obviously good old mechanical techniques were used and even without ‘high tech’ a whole stadium could see the relevant information that way. Amazing.
The films second part, Fest der Schönheit – Festival of Beauty – gives a little more focus on the athletes themselves and takes us outside the stadium to see things like cycling, rowing, swimming, gymnastics, riding, team sports. Somehow I thought it wasn’t quite as good as the first part in total, but the final scenes of high diving are remarkably good.
La Ley del Deseo – Law of Desire – is a really old (1987) film by Almodóvar. I think I saw a bit of it on telly a few years back, but seeing the complete story was a good idea.
A the centre of the story is the director Pablo who can’t really commit to his quasi boyfriend Juan. And then, while Juan is taking some time off, a third guy, Antonio (Banderas) comes into play. He stalks Pablo a bit at first and then gets to know and becomes completely obsessed with him, wanting to take over Pablo’s life completely, wanting to own all of it.
And thus we see Juan getting killed, Pablo losing his memory, Antonio starting to date Pablo’s sister (a transsexual with a hint of abuse as a child… you know the Almodóvar deal…) to take over yet another bit of Pablo’s life and giving us a way to converge to a tragic end.
The story isn’t exactly subtle, but Antonio’s role as a maniac beyond belief is really stunning in there. He doesn’t have any apparent reason to do all this to Pablo, yet he is incredibly determined and ‘just does it’.
Garage Olimpo – or Junta as it is known in Germany – is a depressing film about the secret police in 1970s Argentina. The girl Maria is ‘arrested’ by people claiming to be the ‘military police’ and we follow her into a secret prison behind a garage door where she and others are kept and tortured. While we also learn about her mother trying to locate her daughter and losing her life in the process – not without losing her house to one of the secret policemen first, the main focus remains on Maria.
On Maria and her relationship to the torturer Felix who used to be a lodger at her mother’s house. Felix had always fancied Maria and is now torn between his job and his attraction to her. Similarly, we get to see the strengths and fears of Maria and the other prisoners who try to keep their secrets to themselves and in a way fear the uncertainty of what happens when they’d be released more than their misery in prison.
Although none of the torturing actually makes in on the screen, the set and the direction ensures that you feel the suppression and the danger of the prison. No comfort viewing.
In the more serialised genre, our flat has recently been laughing at Stromberg a series which looks pretty much like direct German rip-off of the BBC’s The Office. Sure, it plays in an insurance company rather that at a paper merchant’s, but that’s pretty much as far as the differences go. Many of the characters are extremely similar to their British counterparts. And even quite a few shots of the office look suspiciously familar – like those of vacuum cleaners or printers. As do little details like the occasional direct communication with the camera within the episodes.
That said, it’s a rather worthy rip-off. In particular, Stromberg, the protagonist and boss in the series is more directly a funny fool than David is in The Office. And he isn’t fiddling with his tie all the time… All that said, this may be entertaining television but it’s also what I consider painful entertainment (‘paintertainment’?). Watching more than a single episode in one go can be very stressful and even within a single episode there are so many embarrassing situations that I found watching it a bit exhausting… and of course the bastards on TV ran their repeat of the series in double-episodes.
As for other films, I didn’t particularly like Cidade Baixa, a Brazilian film about two friends falling in love with the same girl who’s also a bit of a hooker. I was rather amused by the Australian film He died with a Felafel in his hand with a few episodes of flat sharing – and all the oddities that come with them. I was amazed by the ‘strange cool’ thing going on in Dong – aka The Hole – people stay back in a city that is to be evacuated and because of leaking water there ends up being a hole in the floor between two flat giving a strange relation between those people in a scary atmosphere. I was entertained by Benzina, a road movie about two lesbians from a petrol station, which wasn’t as bad as my description makes it sound and looked quite American. I know plenty of people who like animated films, or even odd Japanese animated films – and ended up seeing Wicked City which seemed quite modern for its age.