Category: Foreign Film

Movie Review: Das Leben Der Anderen (The Lives of Others) (2006)

I can’t believe I put off watching this for so long. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-winning first (!) film gives insight into the voyeuristic world of the DDR‘s Secret Police, or Stasi. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a quiet and loyal member of the secret police is highly suspicious of East Germany’s most lauded playwright, Georg Dreymann (Sebastian Koch). Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme), seeing this as an opportunity to get rid of Dreymann so he can move in on his girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), approves the motion to bug their apartment. Wiesler now spends his days in the attic of Dreymann’s apartment building, listening in on his parties, conversations, arguments, and romantic moments. He uncovers no traitorous actions or discussions, but develops personal interest in Dreymann and Christa-Maria’s doings. Hempf, impatient for Dreymann to be taken in, forces Christa-Maria to have an affair with him. Wiesler is disheartened at the realization that his monitoring is for the sake of a corrupt official’s lustful desires. After a friend of his commits suicide, Dreymann is motivated to take action against the DDR’s censorship and blacklisting in the form of a derisive poetic essay published in West Germany. Wiesler must choose between exposing or protecting the man who has opened his mind to art, music, and freedom of thought. Pressure on all three key players increases and escalates into a hearbreaking but appropriate conclusion.

I really loved this movie. Everything was just done so well, so subtly and beautifully. Character development was gradual but explosive. The use of music was spot-on. I am so impressed with the direction and writing, especially considering it is Henckel von Donnersmarck’s first feature-length. I also really appreciated Mühe’s characterization of Wiesler. He brought a lot of personal experience into the role, having lived in East Germany as a theater actor under surveillance, later to find out his wife was listed as an informant. My main complaint would be that it was a bit long, and could have been edited a bit, especially parts at the beginning. But really, just see this movie. It’s that simple.


Also I’ve decided to add a 5-star-based rating to film discussions. Is this an ok thing to do?

Movie Review: Ben X (2007)

One of the many advantages of knowing people who work in the media center at my school’s library, is that awesome, fairly obscure films are uncovered and I get to see them! For free! And probably I never would have known about them otherwise! Anyway last week it was time for Ben X. This is Nic Balthazar’s directing and writing debut, and according to the three sentences on his Wikipedia page, “in Flanders he is well known as a movie critic and television presenter”. I’m certainly glad he chose to move behind the camera, because this film is wonderful. It follows Belgian high schooler Ben (Greg Timmermans) with Asperger’s Syndrome as he deals with insensitive schoolmates as well as various inner conflicts arising from an inability to understand social interactions. His mother (Marijke Pinoy) is loving and supportive, but cannot relate to her son (nor he to her). His father left years ago, leaving her to care for Ben and his little brother. Ben spends most of his time at home playing a World of Warcraft-like game, finding comfort in the strength, anonymity, and non-physical relationships it gives him. He often views his regular life in terms of the video game, seeing bullies as brutish ogres, and himself as an armored warrior. He’s fallen for his “healer” gaming partner, settling into conversations with her easily due to the lack of actual presence. She wants to meet with him in person, but attacks by his classmates coupled with his own retiscence to interact with anyone may hinder their meeting.

The sequencing of the film goes back and forth between Ben’s self-narrated day-to-day life, parallels to the game, flashbacks describing the onset and discovery of his autism, and documentary-like interviews with his mother, schoolmates, and teachers. There is a well-paced build-up to the surprising but satisfying ending. The cinematography is interesting, with many hand-held shots and fuzzy or ultra-bright visuals to heighten Ben’s feelings of alienation. It wasn’t overdone or over-experimental, and I found it especially impressive for a debut feature. Greg Timmermans, while clearly older than a high school student, was really good in the role of Ben, conveying his confusion and aloofness without a lot of dialogue. The story is simple but very interesting and affecting. Personally I also really dug hearing them speak Flemish, a language I don’t think I’d ever heard aloud. It’s a lot like German, so I felt like I was on the brink of understanding it without actually understanding anything. Anyway, Ben X is a creative, engrossing film! Watch it!

Also: Balthazar is supposedly doing an American remake, Haneke-style, but there’s no recent news. I have mixed feelings.

Movie Review: Im Juli (2000)

As I am learning the German language and will be studying there next semester, it follows that I am a pretty big fan of German culture, particularly its movies! There are a lot of great ones out there, old and new, but none that I’ve seen are straight-up comedies. Im Juli, a comedic road trip through Eastern Europe, broke that mold for me. Most of the film is a frame story in which hitchhiker Daniel (Moritz Bleibtreu) tells driver-with-dead-body-in-his-trunk Isa (Mehmet Kurtulus) about how he came to be abandoned in Bulgaria. Daniel is a fairly conservative high school Physics teacher, ready to spend the spring holiday week alone at his house in Hamburg. Adventurous Juli (Christiane Paul) has the hots for him and in a scheme to get his attention she ends up sending him into the arms of another woman, Melek (Idil Üner), who is leaving for Istanbul to meet someone under the bridge on Friday at noon. Propelled by his instant fascination with her, Daniel decides to drive to Istanbul and declare his love, accompanied by hitchhiking Juli (who coincidentally is also going to Istanbul, well whaddaya know). As they get to know each other, they feel both frustration and attraction. They go through many changes of vehicle, lots of lost funds, a couple of problematic border crossings, and get separated more than once. And of course, they meet a lot of ca-razy people! In the end, everything comes full-circle as Daniel, Juli, Isa, and Melek all cross paths and everyone decides to continue their wandering ways together! With Love and Friendship!

Because of his Turkish heritage, director Fatih Akin often incorporates German-Turk relation issues into his films. I like the multi-national aspect of Im Juli, with locations in Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey (they went through Romania as well but weren’t allowed to film there so it’s shown as a series of photographs). I also like how the movie can acknowledge its own silliness: while getting high for the first time, Daniel literally floats; in an attempt to apply science to a car stunt, he fails miserably. And of course, Akin’s passion for music shines throughout. Melek serenades beach campers with a Turkish ballad, Daniel and Juli croon “Blue Moon”, and there are a couple cool club scenes. It’s got pretty much everything you need for a good road movie, with pretty landscapes, near-death experiences, comedic side characters, lack of proper hygiene, and a focus on the development of a relationship. If you’re looking for a German movie that doesn’t relate to WWII, the DDR, or general unsolvable Problems, then you are in the right cinematic location!


Suicide Swing“- J*Let (best song in the movie, from a great club scene where Daniel is hallucinating)

Ukiyo Double Feature: Yojimbo (1961) and Sprited Away (2001)

For my “Ukiyo” class we had another film assignment: after watching both Yojimbo and Spirited Away, pick one that is conclusively “floating world” in its concept and themes, and participate in a group debate in class in which we defend our choice and shoot down the other film as not indicative of the time period we’re studying. Before I even sat down to watch Yojimbo I knew I’d pick Spirited Away– it’s got the hedonism, escapism, lush visuals, and fleeting aspects that defined “floating world” culture. The debates went well but my professor claims they were both draws. Hah.

Yojimbo tells the tale of a wandering ronin (Toshiro Mifune), aka a samurai who no longer has a lord, who finds himself in the middle of a small-town gang war. Disgusted by the feuding gangs’ immorality and pettiness, he sets a plan to manipulate them into destroying themselves, thus freeing the townspeople from their reign. It’s a good plan, but some problems happen, mostly in the form of Unosuke, an asshole gang member with a penchant for gunslinging. But then, some solutions happen in the form of sword fighting and fire-setting. It’s a western for mid-nineteenth century Japan, and it’s all pretty great. There are several comedic characters as well as a few scary/sadistic ones. The samurai himself is cool and gruff, with no reservations about hacking someone’s arm off as long as it’s someone he knows isn’t very nice. He doesn’t need the pleasures of a courtesan or the bribe of a corrupt silk-maker, all he needs is Justice. In case this is sounding familiar, Yojimbo was remade as A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, one of three Kurosawa movies to be turned into spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone (maybe that’s common knowledge and I’m just being overly informative, but I didn’t know about this before so… whatever).

Having never seen either a Kurosawa film or any of Sergio Leone’s westerns, I had very few preconceptions about Yojimbo. I don’t think I could have ever seen it coming, anyway! Everything about it was so… cool. The crisp black and white contrasts, the traditional-meets-hep jazz music, the mash-up outfits and punk-chōnin hairstyles: everything combines to create a wonderful, seemingly anachronistic mood. The face-offs between the gangs were awesome and bloody; why can’t all westerns have swords instead of guns? Much more attention-grabbing. My main criticism is that there are way too many characters, and I had a hard time following who was on which side and who did what thing, etc. Could just have been me, though. Maybe if I watch it again I’ll be able to follow it better. Otherwise, it’s a really fun movie with a great protagonist, cool style, and pretty accurate depictions of small-town life and people in Japan on the eve of the Meiji Era (when it fully opened itself to the West). Unfortunately, the soundtrack is mad expensive.

Well, Spirited Away, what can I say that hasn’t already been said? (Probably not much.) In this modern fairy tale, young Chihiro finds herself torn from her parents and thrown into a world of spirits, demons, witches, dragons, and lots of other things I wish we had in real life. Almost the entire narrative takes place in a large bath house where nature spirits come to rest and replenish. It’s run by the large and squat witch Yubaba, who begrudgingly gives Chihiro a job helping with the baths. Haku, a young sorcerer’s-apprentice-type, befriends her and helps her in her quest to save her parents (who’ve been turned into pigs) and return home. She meets a bunch of interesting and fantastical creatures, helping everybody out with her incorruptibility and stalwartness, and (spoiler alert) is eventually able to go home with her parents, safe and sound. Also, she falls in love.

It’s beautiful and heart-warming, with some life-lessons thrown in. In just a few days, Chihiro grows from a whiny, scaredy-cat brat into a confident, enabled heroine. The stunning visuals and imaginative characters surround her transformation with fun and adventure. Miyazaki is a guy who can consistently make a good movie that’s interesting to both kids and adults, plus he’s given anime films some credibility in Western culture. This movie is great, no doubt about it, but I think Howl’s Moving Castle is my favourite Miyazaki film (probably because it’s more of a love story). I’m not sure what made Spirited Away his big thing in America, but I suspect it has something to do with our girl-caught-in-a-strange-land-just-trying-get-home fixation (eg The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland).

Movie Review: The Life of Oharu (1952)

Well we might as well let the cat out of the bag here people (what?). I’m an art history major, and as a result I’m taking a fascinating seminar on Ukiyo-e, or “Art of the Floating World” during Edo Period (1615-1868) Japan. We’re covering everything from literature to theater to prints to erotica, so it’s a bit overwhelming but really cool. We have several films to watch as part of the class- either depictions of the time period or influenced by it. The first of which was The Life of Oharu, based on “The Life of an Amorous Woman” (1686) by Saikaku (Japan’s main literary innovator of the time).

First, a bit of background. The text on which this is (loosely) based takes the form of an old woman telling her life story as she moved from occupation to occupation propelled by lust. She slept with hundreds of men, had many abortions, caused some suicides, and ruined several relationships (of other people, that is). She’s shameful of a lot her actions, but also very open and excited about her passion and her experiences. It is pretty sexist but at the same time interesting in its depiction of a strong-willed, very independent working woman, following her desires in the 1600s.

This very long film draws a few exact scenes from the story and has the basic idea of following a woman who sinks lower and lower in her profession until she is an unlicensed prostitute, but the central character and overall tone is completely changed. She is now innocent and reserved, sleeping with many men generally because they force her or as a way of making money (her father is in great debt); nothing is done out of passion. A minor plot about a son she is forced to bear but unable to see is added, eliciting one or two watery eyes from yours truly. The beautiful, careful visuals soften everything even further. Because this pathetic life has been thrust unfairly onto someone so passive, the film is more sympathetic than the book (whose narrator was often self-referentially despicable). It’s also more tied together. The book is more a collection of reminiscences, with little sense of linearity. In the movie we see Oharu age and be affected by her past. She is more relatable, but also more stereotypical.

You can see I have mixed feelings. Saikaku’s story bothered me because of the weird juxtaposition of an independent woman who was misogynist (the result of a sexist man writing a female protagonist, I guess?). The movie bothered me because of how generally passive Oharu is. Overall it’s still a really beautiful film and an interesting glimpse into the position of women in Edo Period Japan. Kinuyo Tanaka’s performance was highly praised, and I was impressed with her ability to portray so many ages and to wholly carry the film despite not having a great amount of dialogue. Plus it won some awards! I think it was the first film from Japan to be internationally acclaimed, or entered in the Venice Film Festival, or some landmark of the sort (anyone who knows the specifics, please tell me). Also Mizoguchi is a pretty prolific, big deal Japanese director so I guess it’s important if your interest is non-Western cinema. Basically, watch it only if you’re into this sort of thing.