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.

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

I finally got around to watching Dr Caligari, having had it near the top of my “to watch” list for around six months. It was a Friday 13th weekend so it was a perfectly timed purchase. Watching it was a fantastic experience and the quality of the film belies its 95-year-old lifespan.

Our story opens with a man’s recounting of a tale about the appearance of a mysterious somnambulist show that is exhibiting at a local fair in Holstenwall, a small town near Hamburg in Germany. The show is compered by the strange Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) with the centrepiece provided by a devastatingly eerie Cesare (a pre-Casablanca Conrad Veidt). When a number of murders are committed, including one predicted by Cesare, the two exhibitors are instantly installed as the prime suspects and panic spreads across the town. [1]

With a narrative as twisted as the set on which it plays out and a plot that throws the viewer off the scent with every turn, the film is way ahead of its time across the board. Indeed, I think the biggest blocker for me guessing what was happening was the fact I underestimated quite how advanced a film released in 1920 could be. It’s probably worth bearing that in mind before watching it.

Actually, this is a fantastic starting point for those wanting to learn more about silent films and German expressionist cinema. This was the birth of the latter, as well as both horror films and twist endings. For this reason, it is wholly a ground-breaking film that needs to be seen to fully understand the landscape of cinema at the time. That’s to disregard the political context too, which the film has been closely linked with being a metaphor for – as a German film released in the aftermath of The Great War this is somewhat inevitable, especially since the two writers Carl Mayer and Hans Janozwicz were both soldiers in this war.

I wouldn’t class myself particularly as a die-hard fan of the silent era, though I have seen a handful of the more prominent pictures (mainly Masters of Cinema releases and Charlie Chaplin’s more famous works). I am slowly getting more and more into it thanks to unrivalled access to the entire history of film via both physical media and digital streaming services. It has never been easier to dip your toes in and see what you enjoy out of a wide variety of films and television series. Couple that with the endless streams of discussion pages, essays and blogs on film and you can really think about it as a very advanced education in cinema.

Dr Caligari is a prime example. The Wikipedia page alone is like a short essay on the development, production, release history and reception of the film, complete with links should you wish to find out more information from the original sources.

The set design is as twisted as the plot itself.

It’s good to take a step back and appreciate exactly how far we have come. I remember my family’s first Windows-based computer [2] – a PC running Windows 95, which was then state of the art. As the internet wasn’t readily available we had two computer-based options to do research: Encarta Encyclopaedia and Microsoft Cinemania. The latter was a bit of a godsend for someone who was interested in cinema, with over 20000 films detailed with stills, sound clips and some even having short video clips. It was rudimentary but quite spectacular. As I was 11 at the time my main priority was watching a short but thrilling clip from Nightmare on Elm Street, so I can’t really remember whether Dr Calgari was covered, though I suspect it was.

Now, though, we can search “Dr Caligari” and retrieve 563,000 results on Google (other search engines are available but they generally aren’t as good). Two of the top results give the ability to stream it for free, with two versions available on YouTube. I just think it’s fascinating we are able to do this now, and even more amazing that we now just take it for granted. Progression, eh?

Well, it doesn’t stop there. The basic picture quality is incomparable to what was readily available some twenty years ago. Back then you had three choices if you wanted to see an older film again: wait for it to be re-released at the cinema, wait for it to come onto television, or buy a VHS copy of it for around £15. This latter one allowed you to access the film much sooner, but the picture quality was just atrocious and really unwatchable by today’s standards. Nowadays, you can pick up a Blu-ray copy of most films for less than £10, often closer £5, and the picture quality is like a dream for cinephiles.

Apologies. I digress. The film itself is pretty mind-blowing. I don’t really know where to start with it, and there has been a great deal written about this film elsewhere by people with much better vocabulary. The bottom line is that I was thoroughly impressed. The twisted design, the tense music (I listened in 5.1), the staccato body movement that gives the acting a really sinister edge, the subversive plot. They all combine to present us with a journey that was way ahead of its time. As the reality behind what I was seeing became clear I was left absolutely gobsmacked by the ending. It’s just a must watch for anyone keen to get to grips with the history of cinema.

Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari is available now on Masters of Cinema dual-format Blu-ray and DVD.

[1] It’s funny that I’m attempting to not give away any of the plot when describing the film. It seems 95 years isn’t enough time to wait before spoilers are okay. Think about that the next time you want to talk to someone about the next episode of that show you both like but they haven’t seen.

[2] Our first home computer of any kind was the extremely popular Commodore Amiga, which was originally released in 1985. I’m not sure exactly which model we had as it has long since disappeared, though I suspect it was a 500. I don’t recall it ever being used for word processing and it certainly wasn’t connected to the internet, such was life in central Lancashire in the mid-1980s.

The Book Thief (Brian Percival, 2014)

I’m a massive fan of foreign films. If a small film from an unknown director or studio outside of the US or UK has reached cinemas in the UK then it’s a pretty good indicator that it’s a film has something special about it. I managed to get hold of some preview tickets for this film and felt pretty excited at the start when the subtitles started and I thought “Thankfully, they’ve got it right”.

Then Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush started talking and that’s where it all fell apart.

Why oh why would you pull in two hugely successful English actors and have them put on hammy German accents whilst speaking English, when Germany is full of excellent actors who would surely have been desperate for a big role in such a widely released film. I’m sure Christopher Waltz, Diane Kruger and Daniel Bruhl aren’t the only ones available. I have never ever understood why studios refrain from subtitles in this situation. Most people watching aren’t so stupid they can’t follow it. Heck, we English-speakers might even learn a language or two in the process. Please please please stop ruining films with this approach. If you want to see how to get it right then just watch the first ten minutes of Inglourious Basterds.

That said, the story is told well and there’s a fantastic performance from both the leads: 13-year-old Sophie Nelisse starring as book-obsessed Liesel, and her friend Rudy played by Nico Liersch (hurray a German!). I enjoyed it once I got past the annoying language distraction. It’s visually pretty if a little dull and soft. The John Williams score is beautifully emotive (as you’d expect from one of the greatest film composers of all time).

I’m sad that it didn’t quite hit the mark for me and I wonder whether I would have enjoyed it more if they had gone with a more realistic approach to the dialogue.

The Book Thief is released in UK cinemas on 26th February 2014.