Film review – Happy End (Michael Haneke, 2017)

Michael Haneke’s latest picture is a twisted look into the wealthiest ways of living in the north of France, as seen through the eyes of a dysfunctional family hell-bent on self-destruction. A mixture of humour and satire litters the script to create a solid effort that, despite its best efforts, fails to deliver the same impact as the most dedicated of Haneke fans would hope for.

The film opens with a slow series of voyeuristic shots through the camera phone of 13-year-old Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin), transmitting through a social media platform that looks similar to Snapchat. We see her murder her pet hamster and then, in the final shot, we see her unconscious mother, whilst an overlay of text chat show young Eve admitting she has poisoned her.

In the next shot we see the CCTV footage of a construction site where a huge disaster occurs, critically injuring one of the employees. It is in the aftermath of these two opening gambits that the rest of the film hangs its developing intertwining plots.

We later find out that this workplace accident was due to negligence at the hands of site supervisor and alcoholic Pierre Laurent (Franz Rogowski), whilst firm owner Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert) is left to pick up the pieces and deal with an impending lawsuit. Eve is now living with this family in a large mansion in Calais, along with depressed grandfather Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant).

The ironically-titled Happy End is a good film, but not a great one. The cast is substantial and the dialogue is sharp, but somehow the plot doesn’t feel like it takes us on a journey with enough of the characters. It’s more of a satirical social commentary piece rather than a meaty piece of fiction, with too many of the characters used as fodder for the main characters.

Trintignant and Huppert reunite here with Haneke after the successes of 2012’s Amour, a film that won the Best Picture Academy Award and the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It is clear why Haneke was so keen to work with them both again. They don’t share much screen time together, but with the former’s desire to end his life and the latter desperate to keep the dysfunctional family together and presentable, there is enough to go on to maintain the interest. With the addition of the young Harduin to the cast, this triangle of strength is enough to carry the film.

It could be argued that Toby Jones’s inclusion is on the cynical side. His role is very minor, though his prominence in the advertising campaign will undoubtedly have helped ticket sales in the UK, a place where his acting credentials need no introduction – least of all in the arthouse cinemas in which Happy End will play. If this is true, I don’t mind. It’s just smart advertising and a good way to carve out a niche in the market away from the impending Star Wars: The Last Jedi Release next week. For those of us who go to see more than the most mainstream of films, options and variety are required.

It feels unlikely that Happy End will repeat the award season successes enjoyed by many of his previous efforts, but it’s not without merit.

Glastonbury 2017 Day Two – Prince Achmed, Quiz, Napalm Death, Everything

My second day at Glastonbury this year found me out for the lightweight I really am. I’m sat in my tent at 23:20 now, having given up for the night. There are probably four hours of quality entertainment ahead of me but I simply can’t hack it.

My day started swimmingly with a trip to the Pilton Palais for a screening of The Adventures of Prince Achmed. The performance was accompanied by the Guildhall Electronic Music Studio. The film and accompaniment were top quality and it was a well-chosen start to the day.

After wandering with some friends for a while, I stumbled across a man playing a great selection of covers songs at the Open Arms Bar. We watched a handful of songs, sand heartily (if ironically) to “Take Me Home Country Road” and then set off towards the West Holts Bar. This is where I was “that guy” – the one that randomly helps out with a pub quiz without anyone asking him to. Everyone loves that guy. Right?

Our next step, bizarrely, was to visit Shangri-La and watch Napalm Death. I’m going to be honest – the songs merged into one another and I was hardly impressed by any of their music. Perhaps I was too far back but it didn’t feel like any of their songs were distinct enough or had enough dynamics to encapsulate a crowd who started the set with interest if not enthusiasm.

We tried then to see Everything Everything at the Williams Green stage. The crowds were busy for this set, which was possibly the worst-kept secret of the weekend. Alas, we gave up by the second song and moved on.

And that brings me to here. I was too tired to carry on and made my way back to my tent, even though I desperately wanted to see a friend performing with The Trojans. Exhausted and in need of some rest, I’m hoping I last longer tomorrow night for the huge headline set from Radiohead. I’m sure they’ll have an uplifting song or two to get me through the tiredness barrier.

Film review – Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed / The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, 1926)

The uniquely-animated ‘Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed’, Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 film, is a hugely important film. Work started on it in 1923, and it is the earliest-surviving animated feature film – it clocks in at 65 minutes.

The animation technique used involved cutting out cardboard silhouettes of the characters and manipulating them frame by frame. Some 93,000 frames were created for the film.

Reiniger’s attention to detail was matched by that of the restoration team at the Deutsches Filmmuseum, who in 1999 returned it to its former glory and allowed new generations to enjoy it.

Today’s screening, which was at the Tilda Swindon-curated Pilton Palais at Glastonbury Festival, was accompanied by a unique re-score by the Guildhall Electronic Music Studio.

It’s easy to create a modern score for a classic piece that simply doesn’t fit – Air’s ‘The Journey to the Moon’ is certainly guilty of that – but the mix of classical piano and basic sound effects works perfectly. Mike Oliver oversaw the project and acted as a mentor to those involved. The piano accompaniment from Barbara De Biasi is reminiscent of the Joe Hisaishi scores for Ghibli Studio. As a fan of Hisaishi’s work this was very much welcome. This was augmented by Eric Fabrizi with paper-based sound effects and live narration from Mike Oliver and his daughter Molly.

It all came together wonderfully and felt respectful of the original work whilst breathing a new life into it for a new, younger audience.

It was well attended by an early-afternoon festival crowd. Anyone appearing early for the Frozen sing-a-long would have been entirely confused. For everyone else, the film was a triumph. Congratulations to all involved.

Film review – Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2017)

If you’ve seen Toni Erdmann, you may be forgiven for leaving the cinema mightily confused. Not because the film was overly complicated, but perhaps because you’d watched a film drastically wide of what you’d been expecting. Marketed primarily as a German-Austrian slapstick comedy (schpalschtick? I’m coining it now), what audience have instead been challenged to watch is an affecting tragic drama that deals with a man’s disjointed relationship with his career-focussed daughter and tries to cultivate some kind of relationship amidst the complicated web of activity she has built around herself.

Toni Erdmann is the alter ego name of Winfried Conradi (played by Peter Simonischek), the father of Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller). She is working as a business consultant in Bucharest, but returns to her hometown following the death of the family dog. When Winfried realises she is unduly stressed and taking a fake phone call in the back garden, he decides to follow her back to Bucharest and spy on her to find out more about her life.

 

One of the main polarising aspects of the film is the relationship between the father and daughter. Depending on how you interpret it, you might see him as a terrible father who is undermining his daughter’s progress in her career. She is trying her hardest to be taken seriously in her role in the midst of some terrible sexism in her workplace, but he is treating her whole life as a joke and she is right to distance herself due to the feeling of resentment over his actions. One cringe-worthy encounter involves an important business meeting with an important contact Henneberg (Michael Wittenborn) at an evening drinks social, whereby she makes a serious suggestion on a business level, but instead is asked by the man to take his wife shopping, whilst Ines’s father – as the ridiculous titular Toni – is invited for more drinks. A frustrating scene that portrays the subtleties of sexism at their absolute worst.

However, if you side with the father and assume that he is a totally devoted father – or at least one regretting not being devoted in the past – then you can read it that he has seen his daughter struggling, depressed and stressed, and wants to help her realise that there is more to life than being stressed at work. When he sees his daughter being pushed around by her workmates and not being treated equally, then he realises he needs to step in and show her what she can’t see – that she’s wasting her time.

 

After contemplating the film for over a week, I’m still not entirely sure where I sit on this, though I’m leaning towards the latter.

There are moments of real comedy in the film, but they are often laced with tragedy serving to undercut any notion that this is a comedy. There is a memorable scene when she organises a birthday brunch, which is only organised because it offers an opportunity for work colleagues to socialise. However, when she gets stuck in her dress whilst getting ready, she decides to simply take the dress off and answer the door with no clothes on. Initially humorous, the ripples of laughter disintegrated as the audience in my screening realised that we were witnessing a woman having a breakdown.

It’s a truly intelligent film that refuses to provide any definitive interpretations on the situation, instead allowing the viewers to make up their own mind. Thought-provoking and well-executed – exactly what a film should be.

Der Letzte Mann / The Last Laugh (F. W. Murnau, 1924)

Alfred Hitchcock once described Murnau’s The Last Laugh as an “almost perfect film”. Watching it now it’s hard to disagree with him.

The film stars Emil Jannings as a nameless aging doorman at a well-respected hotel in Germany. The manager of the hotel notices him and decides he is too old to perform his job properly and is reflecting poorly on the hotel. He decides to demote him to the position of attendant in the washroom. Feeling demeaned and now without his uniform, the man slips into depression. 

It’s an astonishing and gripping performance from Jannings, and one that is rightly celebrated even ninety years on. The ability to fully engross the audience is formidable, with many long periods of the film simply focused on his facial expressions. It’s a one-man-show, and a film played out with just one intertitle. The basics of the plot can be explained briefly (see the second paragraph), but the meat of the story that makes it so special is acted out entirely facially through his animated grief.

Fortunately, the Masters of Cinema release includes the original 1924 Giuseppe Becce score, orchestrated and performed by Detlev Glanert. This single option takes out the uncertainty that often surrounds these classic films rereleased and the score is a perfect match for the visuals.

The epilogue following the only intertitle seems a little fanciful and at odds with the rest of the film. The intertitle even offers a disclaimer for it, almost apologising for not following through on the overly-realistic story it had played out in the previous sixty minutes. It provides a happy ending to the audience but feels a little like a studio executive has forced the ending on Murnau.

At the heart of it, it is a film that challenges the viewer to think about how we allow people to lose their confidence and treat older people with less respect than they deserve. It was, at the time, an unusual film with an extraordinary plot. Its success gave confidence to other directors to believe that a film could be whatever they wanted it to be. In that sense, it is one of the most important films of the silent era and one you should seek out as soon as you can.

[1] Bade, James, N. Murnau’s ‘The Last Laugh’ and Hitchcocks subjective camera. Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Volume 23 (2006).

Film review – Varieté (Ewald André Dupont, 1925)

Recently remastered and re-released by Eureka on their Masters of Cinema label, Ewald André Dupont’s Varieté is a wonderful film that’s well-deserving of a bit more attention, even 90 years after its original release.

It follows Boss Huller (Emil Jannings), the owner of a touring circus and former trapeze artist. Now retired with his wife (Maly Delschaft) and trapeze partner, their relationship is functional but stagnant. However, when  a mysterious woman called Berta-Marie (Lya De Putti) appears and joins his entourage, he becomes besotted with her and this marks the end of his marriage. Shortly after this a celebrated younger male trapeze artist named Artinelli (Warwick Ward) joins to turn their duo into a trio. Frictions rise between the two men as they begin to vie for the interest of Berta whilst remaining professional on stage.

Brit Ward and love rival German Jannings

Modern cinema fans may know lead actor Jannings, though they may not realise it. He was portrayed in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2007) by Hilmer Eichhorn in the tensely played-out film premier scene. During the Second World War, Liebich was an outspoken supporter of the Nazi party and was taking lead roles in many of the biggest Weimar-era films. By the end of the war, with the Nazi party defeated, he was left unable to work in the restructured Germany keen to forget the pervious decade, eventually retiring to a farm in Austria before dying at the start of the 1950s.

Before this, however, he was a much-celebrated film star, both in Germany and America. He was the first actor to receive the Oscar for Best Actor (for roles in two films: The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh), which happens to also be the first ever Oscar statue given out at the first ceremony, putting Jannings in a unique part of film history. Perhaps his greatest performance came in Die Letzte Mann, released a year before Varieté. He would surely have won more Best Actor Oscars if only the Academy Awards had started ten years previously.

The way the film plays out may leave viewers feeling somewhat bemused about how we are supposed to feel for the lead actor. Firstly, he leaves his wife at the drop of a hat for a woman he knows almost nothing about other than that she has arrived on a seemingly cursed ship. Then, when his new lover essentially does the same back to him, he plots a jealousy-fuelled revenge, murdering both her and her lover. It seems too that the judge in charge of hearing his plight forgives him and allows him to leave prison. It doesn’t leave much room for any kind of compassion for the character. Indeed, when it was released in America the entire introduction was cut from the release, leaving a much more moral character for the viewers [1].

You may also need to suspend your belief that Jannings could possibly pull off the stunts involved. Whilst they are beautifully and innovatively shot, I couldn’t help but feel like Jannings – 40 at the time of the shoot – was a tad too portly to follow the trajectories required of a trapeze artist. Inevitably an unconvincing stunt double was used, but it’s only a minor blemish on a series of quite fascinating scenes.

Whilst the restoration is absolutely perfect, a note should be made about the variety of soundtrack options available. The unusual default option is supplied by The Tiger Lillies. I attempted to watch this version but changed it after about ten minutes. It didn’t seem to fit very well at all – much more modern than it should have been and not really matching the tone of what was happening on the screen. Much better is the Johannes Contag version, listed as third on the main menu. There’s also the aforementioned complete American version, though I didn’t venture this far.

This is well worth investing in for fans of German silent cinema, and it’s great to see it being given so much attention so long after its initial release. 

[1] http://www.silentsaregolden.com/debartoloreviews/rdbvariete.html

Film review – Frantz (François Ozon, 2016)

Set primarily in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, François Ozon’s latest film is an emotional story portrayed almost entirely in black and white. It revolves around Anna (Paula Beer), a woman who is living with the parents of her lost lover and supporting each other in their collective grief. That man is the titular Frantz (Anton von Lucke), who we learn has lost his life in battle during the war. When a Frenchman by the name of Adrien (Pierre Niney) shows up at Frantz’s grave to give his respects, he tells them of his close friendship to their mutually lost friend.

Adrien (Niney) and Anna (Beer)

Ozon is something of a prolific filmmaker on almost the same level as Woody Allen. Since his celebrated debut feature length film Sitcom in 1998, he has written and directed sixteen films, amongst them the critically acclaimed Swimming Pool and the highly successful Potiche. Yet Frantz is, by all accounts, a departure in style for him and sees him in relatively unfamiliar territory with a historical war drama.

It is based on the play ‘L’homme que j’ai tué’ by Maurice Rostand. Before writing his script, Ozon was unaware that the play had already been adapted by legendary filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch as the film Broken Lullaby in 1931, though when he watched the film he realised that it was a completely different treatment to the direction he wanted to go with Frantz. He wanted to give the focus of the film to Anna, who was on the losing side of the war, providing more empathy to her as the central character.

There is an interesting chemistry between Beer and Niney, both of whom are playing extremely complex characters. They share this individual that has had a huge affect on their respective lives and begin to grow closer. Providing convincing characterisations of such  conflicting emotions is a challenge both rise to and it is this that elevates the film above being a wartime drama.

It was amazing to learn that this was Beer’s first performance acting as a French-language character. Many successful actresses couldn’t achieve what she has here in their first language let alone their second one. She revealed in a post-screening discussion that she had to learn and develop the script twice. Initially she developed the emotional responses to the words in her native German, before relearning the entire segments in French to ensure her delivery wasn’t lacklustre.

This is a truly moving film that gives an interesting point of view to the fallout from war that hasn’t often been explored before. Superb delivery from the two complex central characters means this comes highly recommended.

Film review – Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, 2015)

The latest film from director Sebastian Schipper is Victoria, a one-shot bank heist film set in modern day Berlin. When I say one-shot, I mean one-shot: no trickery, no cut-aways, no cheating. That’s 138 minutes of film in one continuous take – a bold move that took three attempts to get right. It’s a glorious achievement and a wonder to behold, even though the film is perhaps flawed as a result of its own triumph.

The story centres around the titular Victoria (Laia Costa), a girl we first join in a nightclub in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin. She’s alone but when she leaves the club she has a conversation with four men: Sonne (Frederick Lau), Boxer (Frank Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit) and Fuss (Max Mauff). Getting embroiled in their night and swept away with the chemistry between herself and Sonne, she suddenly finds herself agreeing to take part in an early-morning bank heist that puts all of their lives at risk.

One of the greatest achievements involved with this film is the way that the single shot doesn’t get in the way of a well-told story. This is achieved by having five central actors that are focused and well-briefed. Any slip up at any point and the whole thing would fall down. Helping this was the fact the script was only twelve pages long, which meant the cast could improvise their scenes. 

What is lost, however, is the ability to maintain the pace by cutting sections that on reflection didn’t work. There are two instances where I felt they had faded out the audio and brought in the musical soundtrack from Nils Frahm solely to cover up a mess-up in dialogue. I may have been trying too hard to spot the errors knowing editing wasn’t a possibility, but with more freedom the film could have been chopped down to about 100 minutes to deliver a fast-paced action film.

So what would that achieve? Well, perhaps the film would be more accessible by being a faster tempo with no down time. Would I have seen it in an edited form? It’s doubtful. I’m a huge fan of the skill of acting, and thousands of actors achieve wondrous things night after night in theatres across the planet. It’s such a shame that directors and editors don’t have the balls to let them act for more than five seconds at a time in most Hollywood films.

Watching Victoria may require a bit of effort from the viewer, but seeing a group of actors achieve greatness with minimal scripting is worth it. Throw in the fact you are watching a director trying something technically astounding – and succeeding – and you have a film most worthy of your consumption.

A must see!

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (F. W. Murnau, 1931)

The last of four films Murnau made after moving to America – the others being the Oscar winning Sunrise, the excellent City Girl and the now-lost Four Devils – Tabu marked something of a departure for the master director. He travelled to Bora Bora near Tahiti with documentary filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty. Setting out to make a docufiction film as co-director, it quickly became apparent that Murnau wanted complete control and Flaherty was bought out of his share of the film.

Despite the unusual setting, this has all the hallmarks of a classic Murnau romance.

Despite the unusual setting, this has all the hallmarks of a classic Murnau romance.

The result of this is an opening sequence that seems very much like a documentary film, with native islanders (almost every actor in the film was an untrained native, along with most of the production crew) fishing, playing and acting naturally. According to the extensive booklet notes (thanks again Masters of Cinema), this was the only sequence Flaherty directed before he encountered technical issues with his camera and brought in cameraman Floyd Crosby to assist. The upshot of this was that the rest of the film was the responsibility of Murnau.

Subsequently, we then pick up on a more traditional method of storytelling. A girl named Reri (Anna Chevalier) is chosen by aged emissary Hitu of neighbouring island Fanuma to be the replacement maiden to the Gods. She is to be transported to the island to live there free of any kind of relationship; from this point on she is “tabu”. This is terrible news for both Reri and her lover Matahi, who defy this command and escape the island to a French-colonised island nearby.

The story of two lovers remaining together despite adversity is reminiscent of both Sunrise and City Girl, and other than the unfamiliar setting Murnau is on safe territory. It doesn’t feel stale, but it’s certainly the least dynamic of the three available Hollywood films. Both lead characters give assured performances in their roles despite a lack of experience. Matahi never worked on another film following this release. Anne Chevalier worked on two subsequent films (Polish film Czarna Perla and an uncredited role in John Ford’s The Hurricane) but neither are as fondly remembered as Tabu.

F. W. Murnau’s final film was actually released a week after his death. Whilst working on the sound for the film, Murnau was being driven up the coast from Los Angeles by a 14-year-old Fillipino servant and was involved in a car crash, dying a day later in hospital. It’s a shame that this was his last film and a tragedy that his life was cut short so early, robbing the world of countless more exceptional films. He had actually spent most of his final months on the island Bora Bora, having enjoyed his time there so much.

The definitive version of Tabu is available on Masters of Cinema Blu-ray and DVD dual-format release, packed with extras (deleted scenes, a short film directed by Flaherty using leftover footage, a documentary) and with an immaculate transfer. It also restores scenes that were cut before its original release, as well as those taken out in subsequent cuts over the intervening years (the explanation for all of this is in the extensive booklet that’s included in the box)

Fußball, Wie Noch Nie / Football as Never Before (Hellmuth Costard, 1971)

In 2004, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, the much-celebrated documentary following footballer Zinedene Zidane throughout a 90-minute match, was released. The film featured a cracking soundtrack from Scottish band Mogwai and was overlaid with a one-on-one interview with the man himself. It was eye-opening and served as a fantastic snapshot of one of the greatest sportsmen of the modern era, providing an intriguing insight into a man many consider to be a genius.

33 years prior to this, however, there was made a now-long-forgotten German film called Fußball, Wie Noch Nie. The premise is so similar to Zidane that it really undermines what I thought at the time was a unique concept. In this film, we follow footballer George Best over a 90-minute match against Coventry City, which took place on 12th September 1970. There is no soundtrack and no interview overlaid, just Best doing what he did best – playing football.

George Best was at the back-end of the peak of his career when this film was released.

George Best was at the back-end of the peak of his career when this film was released.

Of course, it wasn’t the only thing he did well. For a full picture of the footballing legend you’ve got to include women, drinking and drugs in that list. As a Manchester United fan it can be frustrating that nowadays this overshadows what was a fantastic career, even though it was cut tragically short through his alcoholism (he essentially hit decline at the age of 26 in 1972 and spent the next decade never quite achieving the dizzy heights he’d already reached in the early parts of his career, playing in Scotland, Ireland, USA and Australia before retiring). This documentary serves an excellent purpose in that it gives us a chance to remind ourselves just how good he was on a game-by-game basis, and was taken during the back-end of the peak of his career: the 1970-71 season finished with Best as top-scorer and United finishing a respectable 8th; his team-mates included Brian Kidd, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and Alan Gowling; Sir Matt Busby was eventually back in charge (though not in time for this game); memories of the European Cup victory were still fresh in the mind of the players and the fans. Manchester United were in transition, but for Best this season would prove to be one of his last memorable ones.

In case you’re wondering (spoiler alert), the game finishes 2-0 to Manchester United, with Best scoring one of the goals. Charlton scored the other. It perhaps wasn’t the most interesting game to select for this subject, but it’s nice to see a United victory and you get to experience what it was like to be in Old Trafford in the early 1970s.

It is by all accounts an experimental film. The half-time whistle goes and we are treated to a bizarre experience of staring directly into Best’s eyes whilst some hypnotic visuals serve as a backdrop. I suppose the aim is to challenge the viewer to try to imagine what goes through a player’s mind during the half-time interval, but it certainly doesn’t feel like that. Essentially, aside from this half-time segment, the film is more of an artefact than anything else.

It’s not particularly easy to get hold of. I had to import my copy from the German Amazon store, though as it’s PAL it will work perfectly well on your UK DVD players. Was it worth the effort? Well, I’m still undecided. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but I got a level of enjoyment out of it. For fans of both foreign, experimental cinema and Manchester United then I’d recommend it. Otherwise, you might be better suited to one of the highlight videos on YouTube.

Fussball, Wie Noch Nie is available from Amazon UK, though it will be cheaper to get from Amazon DE via import. No Blu-ray is available.