German Classics An Introduction to New Films by Margarethe von Trotta, Volker Schlöndorff, Werner Herzog By Klaus Eder
by Klaus Eder
Volker Schlöndorff made his first film in 1966, Young Torless (Der junge Törless). Werner Herzog started in the mid-60s with short films and made his first long feature in 1968, Signs of Life (Lebenszeichen). Margarethe von Trotta’s debut as director was, in 1978, The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (Das zweite Erwachen der Christa Klages). At the time, they were an integral part and even the center of the movement of “Young German Cinema”, the German version of the French Nouvelle Vague. For years, even decades, they were influential protagonists of German cinema, and represented a new and young German authors’ cinema internationally. Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) won an Oscar in 1980.
30 years later. The Toronto Festival presents new films by the three directors, as world premieres and in the same section, “Masters”.
Margarethe von Trotta
With her new film I Am the Other Woman (Ich bin die Andere), Margarethe von Trotta is back to her strengths, after directing Rosenstrasse in 2003 and some films for German television. Adapted from a novel by German author and scriptwriter Peter Märthesheimer (who died in 2004), the film tells the story of a sort of one-sided “amour fou”: the story of a man, Robert, an engineer of bridges, who irresistibly and irrevocably falls in love with a woman, and does everything in his power to see her again. He neglects his business and leaves his fiancée. He starts to ruin his life, and runs with open eyes into a disaster. Robert’s obsession is impressively performed by August Diehl, growing visibly paler as he comes further and further apart.
It’s also the story of the mysterious woman (Katja Riemann) whom Robert runs into in the lobby of a Frankfurt hotel. She calls herself Carlotta, is drunk, and carries a loud and flashy red cloth and a super-blond wig. He rescues her from being thrown out of the hotel by taking her into his room, and his bed. Next morning, he meets her again in the office at a law firm. Now, she’s Dr. Carolin Winter and turns out to be his legal adviser in some contract business. She’s a tough businesswoman, friendly, effective, unobtrusive and reserved. She seems not to remember — or does not wish to remember — that she spent the night with her client.
Later on, we understand that she does indeed not remember. It’s because of a defect of her personality, sort of double-identity phenomena. Slowly, step by step, Margarethe von Trotta reveals her biographical background. Her family is prosperous, as we can guess the owner of winegrowing estates. Her mother (Karin Dor, the star of the popular cinema of the German 60s) is frustrated. Her father (a brilliant Armin Müller-Stahl) is a bitter, cynical and very authoritarian old man. Confined to a wheelchair after an accident caused by his daughter, he now keeps her totally dependent upon him. Margarethe von Trotta unfolds a dramatic and tragic portrayal of a family. The complexity, rigor, audacity with which she shows the relations between the members of that family are concerning and frightening.
Seen from the end, this bitter family drama seems to be clear, even if it’s an unusual family with deep — and deeply narrated — psychological conflicts. As the story unfolds from the beginning, we’re however confronted — as is Robert — with inexplicable incidents and unfathomable characters; it’s impossible to know what game any one of them is playing. Margarethe von Trotta manages to create an enigmatic and mysterious atmosphere, particularly around Carlotta/Carolin. Katja Riemann wonderfully plays two different women, the vulgar prostitute and the clever businesswoman, eventually folding in touches of a wounded and vulnerable child depending totally upon her father.
Not its least quality wins the film from an excellent acting.
It’s a long way from The Second Awakening of Christa Klages to I Am the Other Woman: The journey from a debutante to a master. But von Trotta’s thematic preferences — her interest in a female social psychology — haven’t changed much. I am the Other Woman is easily recognizable as a film directed by Margarethe von Trotta. It may even be her best work, at least in recent years.
One needs the self-confidence of a Volker Schlöndorff to name one’s film after Sergey Eisenstein’s 1924 Strike (Stachka). Eisenstein’s film told the story of workers during Czarist rule who stopped their labours. Schlöndorff tells much the same story: His Strike (Strajk — Die Heldin von Danzig) brings us back to the beginnings of the Solidarity movement in the Polish city of Gdansk. Dealing with actual, relatively recent events (the film is set in the 1970s), he had to face the problem of remaining faithful to the historical facts while leaving enough room for drama. He’s achieved it in a highly professional way.
Schlöndorff smoothly integrates documentary footage into the fictionalized story of a woman whose engagement helped create the Solidarity movement. The real woman was Anna Walentynowicz; Schlöndorff calls her Agnieszka Kowalska, and she is played by the German actress Katharina Thalbach (dubbed into Polish, the film’s original language). Schlöndorff shows her as an exemplary labourer: In the Gdansk shipyard, she works as a welder, a decorated socialist worker’s hero. She wants to become a crane driver, and learns to read and write to pass the specialist’s exam. She has a son, and has a short marriage to a man who dies shortly afterward. She dedicates her life to the shipyard and to her work.
Already, at this first part of the story, the film paints an attractive, colorful, detailed picture of the shipyard: The work, the workers, the everyday life of a big factory. Volker Schlöndorff can do this; it’s a pleasure to see his professional skill at work.
Then, an accident happens. Workers die. The bereaved families get no money from the shipyard — no pensions, nothing. Agnieszka Kowalska gets angry at the injustice, and her development into a political character begins — not from a political motivation, but from an entirely human one. Consequently, Schlöndorff frames the big strike of 1980 as a reaction of her co-workers on Kowalska’s subsequent firing (on flimsy terms, just to get rid of her). He depicts her as a sort of motor behind Lech Walesa, the official hero of the movement (and later president of the country). Agnieszka Kowalska becomes a sort of ‘mother’ (Pudovkin), of ‘mother courage’ (Brecht) of the uprising.
Katharina Thalbach is great. It’s her film. She plays a historical role, in a historical film that has an amazing décor and an impressive arrangement of mass scenes, offering a remarkable lesson in history.
There’s also a message — the good old-fashioned leftist idea that you have to engage yourself to change the world, as Agnieszka Kowalska does. Schlöndorff pleads for the weak ones, the forgotten heroes, the social outcasts, the oppressed — as he did in his very first film, and in a lot of others. (See the preceding The Ninth Day (Der neunte Tag).) It’s a message which seems a little outmoded and old-fashioned, nowadays … but it’s still a good one.
In 1997, Werner Herzog made a documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly (Flucht aus Laos), about Dieter Dengler, an American pilot of German origin who crashed and was captured in Laos during the Vietnam War. In Rescue Dawn, a Hollywood production, he tells the story again — this time as fiction, with Christian Bale in the role of Dengler.
The film opens as a group of navy pilots prepare for an operation in Vietnam. Then, Dengler’s plane is shot down. He is caught, maltreated and tortured, and is transferred to a remote prison camp, a shabby place where he meets a few other POWs, both of American and Vietnamese origin. With some of them, he plans his escape. At the end, he’s the sole survivor, and will be rescued by one of the last US helicopters to fly over the area.
It’s a rather classical and familiar adventure. Werner Herzog is mostly interested in the escape of the small group of men through the jungle, which is a classical fight for survival against nature (once, a starving Dengler eats a live snake). It’s the Herzogian story of a crazy man who has a crazy idea and risks everything to achieve it. Dengler, in Herzog and Bale’s view, is not a simple POW trying to escape. He’s a man obsessed, first by his idea of flying and becoming a navy pilot, and then by the idea of deciding his own fate rather than allowing the Vietcong to decide it for him. Herzog passes him through a sort of hell, an apocalypse which does not break his hero’s will and quest for liberty, but even seems to reinforce them.
Thus far, Rescue Dawn is very much a film by Werner Herzog. But his ideas seem to get lost in the necessities of an adventure and war film. Rescue Dawn is the first genre movie Herzog has made, and probably the most expensive film he’s ever undertaken. (It’s shot by the excellent cameraman Peter Zeitlinger.) It shows that Herzog, surprisingly, controls the genre and its rules. It’s a pleasure to see how skillfully he uses effects, the whole machinery of a studio, professional actors. The crash of Dengler’s plane is impressive, as is the climactic rescue sequence. This is an undeniably commercial project. But the more Herzog works to serve the genre, the more his intentions as author disappear, resulting in the deplorable depiction of all the Vietcong characters as animalistic beasts and devils — generic Hollywood bad guys.
Rescue Dawn is a considerable action thriller. But if you saw the film without knowing who’d directed it, you would never guess his name was Werner Herzog.