Despite nights becoming longer and the dreadful winter time catching up with us again, I didn’t see many films in October. The few that I saw were Praxis Dr. Hasenbein, Das weiße Band and Coco avant Chanel.
File this one as absurd theatre. Helge Schneider is a German comedian. But I’m hesitant to use that word because he’s not that ‘funny’ in the way that comedians are supposed to be ‘fun’ today. He’s smarter with a taste for the absurd - and allegedly when doing shows and not liking the audience he tried submitting them to two hours of ‘Strafjazz’ instead of being funny.
His 1997 film Praxis Dr. Hasenbein [IMDB, Wikipedia] has him as a doctor in a small town neighbourhood, indulging in the absurdities of his life and that of his neighbours. He cares for his grown up retarded son, deals with the orphanage in the neighbourhood with its mean caretaking lady and mischievous kids and indulges in chatting to the owner of the local cigar store, taking joy in buying a ‘goodie bag for guys’ with useless toys in it for himself.
Of course he’s also a
quack doctor, giving useless advice to his patients and trying to find a good nurse. Queue some fairly Monty Python-esque scenes when dismissing an applicant for the job. — In the danger of spoiling things for everyone I also have to remark that I thought it was a hilarious that Dr. Hasenbein killed the rabbit of the kids in the orphanage by jumping on it and they decided to get their revenge by putting razor-blades between the keys of the piano he was to play for their ‘mother”s birthday. When doing so, he just laughs, pulls the blades from the keyboard and tell them it’s the oldest trick in the book. (What do you mean this doesn’t sound funny? It is.)
Michael Haneke has a fantastic track record of dire films he directed. Funny Games is his mind-boggling classic on human evil, Der siebte Kontinent may be an even greater collection of personal devastation, presented in an orderly fashion and with Caché he took the theme of a guy’s past catching up with him in a freaky way to broader audiences. His latest film Das weiße Band - eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The white ribbon - a German children’s story) [Homepage, IMDB, Wikipedia] moves on to portray a whole community and their broken characters.
The community is a cold one in Northern Germany. As is typical in the region, the people are joyless protestants with the most powerful people in town being the baron, the doctor and the priest. One day the doctor is injured in a riding accident - a wire had been put up for his horse to fall over. Other incidents happen, a shed burns down, the baron’s kid is tied up, the nurse’s handicapped son is in danger, and nobody can figure out what’s going on. Being so busy with their righteous lives, people don’t particularly care either, just the teacher, who also narrates the story, starts asking questions and suspecting the village’s kids, some of whom seem strange from the first scene in the film, to perhaps know something or even be involved. Needless to say that such suspicions don’t go down particularly well.
While not as personally devastating as Haneke’s other films, the picture he draws of the community is an unpleasant one. The self-righteousness of the community, fuelled by their beliefs, directs their behaviour. While they are doing everything ‘right’, they seem to do everything wrong. They don’t talk and their kids inherit that. Being from Northern Germany myself, this portrait of the people as joyless protestants seems correct in its essence and what may make life unpleasant there (and I’d say that if there is an ‘American problem’, it may have similar roots, not quite as joyless but even more self-righteous perhaps).
Great scenes in the film include the priest punishing his kids by sending the whole family to bed without dinner because of their ‘wrongdoing’, the cruelty of letting them know they’re in for a hiding the next evening while making clear how cruel they are to force him into that action. They are also decorated with a white ribbon, the namesake of the film (written in hard-to-read Sütterlin on the posters [not that I have any knowledge of old-style German handwriting, but Wikipedia suggests that the film plays in 1913 and Sütterlin was only introduced in schools from 1915 onwards]) later on to be reminded of their innocence.
In another rather funny scene we see the baron’s wife who just came back from Italy with their son tell her husband that she’ll go back. She tells him that she got to know some friendly guy down there and then spends a minute or to explaining how people’s minds in this region are fucked up and that she doesn’t want to expose her son to the resulting abuse anymore. Of course her husband stopped listing after the first sentence, completely ignores the only insightful analysis in the film and can ask nothing but
did you sleep with him afterwards. Genius. Or amusing at least.
One impression I keep having about Haneke is that he has some of the great tragedies and tensions of the human psyche and behaviour nailed and knows to exhibit them in a clear form. But visually his films have a made-for-television taste. That was clear in his older films, particularly those playing mostly indoors but I was also left with it after seeing the landscapes and faux-black and white in Das weiße Band. Perhaps it’s just a ‘personal style’.
The film Coco, avant Chanel [IMDB] gives the story of Coco Chanel’s youth in the first two decades of the twentieth century. She worked as a seamstress and dreamt of singing, an endeavour which led her to got to know some rich people, become a mistress, baffle the high-society with her ideas for ‘less ridiculous’ hats and clothing and somehow end up with her own fashion shop in Paris.
The film shows the life of the young Coco before becoming a fashion icon, founding the popular No. 5 fragrance, being a bit too friendly with the Nazi occupants and rising to popularity again with the American middle class, quite likely founding a business empire in the process.
Unfortunately the film restrains itself from commenting or giving more background. It shows Coco Chanel as a person who has her own mind, initially isn’t too self confident and learns that being some rich guy’s mistress has its benefits. Not exactly heroic. But, hey, Audrey Tautou!
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