Dec 5, 2009

Review Post 57: Festival of German Films

German Film Festival 2009
This is my fourth year attending the German Film Festival at London’s Curzon Soho. This year I was joined by a German friend (my Brother’s girlfriend Andrea). She picked the films, though they were both films that I would likely have seen if I’d gone on my own.

Neither of these films has been passed by the BBFC as yet.

DIR: Hermine Huntgeburth
CAST: Julia Jentsch, Sebastian Koch,
Misel Maticevic, Juliane Kohler

Apparently the story of Effi Briest is very famous in Germany, something of a classic novel, and like much of our classic literature, much adapted for the screen (the last version was by Rainer Werner Fassbinder). The story is set in late 19th/early 20th century Germany, and sees young Effi (Jentsch) married off by her family to the wealthy, much older, Baron Instetten (Koch). On moving to Instetten’s house on the coast Effi finds herself bored and takes refuge in an illicit relationship with dashing young Major Von Crampas (Maticevic).

The story feels familiar almost to the point of formula, and some of the plot devices (the letters especially) are so hackneyed that you can see almost every turn of the story coming from a few miles off, even if, as was the case for me, you don’t know the story anyway. The only thing that isn’t especially predictable is the ending, changed from the book quite substantially, and it sticks out like a sore thumb. After spending nearly two hours very properly in period the film tries desperately to cram in some contemporary relevance. It is as if the character of Effi is suddenly flung fifty or sixty years forward in time, such is the change in her attitude. It’s odd, and doesn’t work at all.

This isn’t the big issue though. The real problem with Effi Briest is that it is a curate’s egg. It looks beautiful, the acting is strong, most of the scenes work in and of themselves and yet this ornately made thing doesn’t add up to very much, doesn’t do very much. It just sort of sits there, lovely to behold, fleetingly engaging, but ultimately forgettable and unable to connect on any real emotional level.

Julia Jentsch is surely one of the finest German actresses working - for the proof see her performance in Sophie Scholl - and she is customarily brilliant here. One of her best moments comes when she isn’t even facing the camera. When Effi is visited by her estranged 6-year-old daughter, who almost immediately asks to go home, the devastation that Effi feels registers viscerally even though the reaction shot is of her back. Much of Jentsch’s best work is done in the absence of dialogue, of which she actually has surprisingly limited amounts, she has an interesting face, which can be either beautiful or boyish depending on the angle, and while her work is always subtle she is always highly expressive, laying bare her character’s emotions at all times.

Sebastian Koch, so good in Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, has perhaps the most difficult role. Instetten seems to be a man devoid of, or even unaware of, emotion. Playing what is essentially a blank vessel without becoming boring is a hard task, but Koch just about squares the circle. The real issue with his performance is perhaps inherent in his casting, and that simply that Instetten doesn’t really come off as the villain I suspected the story wanted to cast him as. The rest of the supporting cast generally does good work, but the film does create a major problem for itself by casting such a non-entity as Misel Maticevic as Crampas. He looks as if he’s just left high school, and Matcevic never really gives him much personality. I never really bought the love between him and Effi. However, Julian Kohler, Barbara Auer and Andre Hennicke all contribute strong character work.

Hermine Huntgeburth’s direction is generally fine (with the exception of some bizarre scenes involving Effi’s nightmares, which seem teleported in from another film). The period detail is beautiful and there are some nicely designed shots, while the scenes in a deserted shack where Effi and Crampas meet are especially attractive, with the light spilling in through cracks in the walls and roof. The thing is Huntgeburth never really stamps much identity on the film, it’s a film that looks as if it could have been made by 100 directors (if, for example, Joe Wright had done it, I can imagine the only real difference being the presence of Keira Knightley).

It isn’t that Effi Briest is a bad film, and actually if you’re a fan of Julia Jentsch (and if you aren’t, why the hell not?) it’s worth seeing because her performance is exceptional, but it’s one of a very few things to raise this largely forgettable film out of the extremely ordinary.

DIR: Maren Ade
CAST: Birgit Minichmayr, Lars Eidinger,
Hans-Jochen Wagner, Nicole Marischka

NOTHING happens in Everyone Else, but that’s not why I hated it, after all, nothing happens in The Dreamlife of Angels, nothing really happens in Before Sunset. The people in Everyone Else are horrible, but that’s not why I hated it, after all, there’s nobody remotely sympathetic in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, there’s nobody especially likable in Pulp Fiction. I hated Everyone Else for one overwhelming reason: I didn’t give a shit.

It doesn’t matter if you love or hate a character in a movie, just as long as you are interested in them, and none of the people in Everyone Else are even remotely interesting. For two hours we spend almost every moment with late 20’s couple Gitti (Minichmayr) and Chris (Eidinger) and yet in all that time all that we really learn about them is that she's in A and R, he’s an architect and both of them are selfish navel-gazing wankers. The couple are staying in a villa belonging to Chris’ parents, while he supposedly works on plans for a renovation, though we only see blueprints fleetingly. Most of the film consists of the petty bullshit of a disintegrating relationship.

I’m not sure what Maren Ade wants us to take away from this film, which amounts, most of the time, to a pair of pretty bad actors being sniping at one another. In La Seperation I cared about what happened to the characters played by Isabelle Huppert and Daniel Autueil, not because they were likable, but because the whole thing felt horribly real and raw. Everyone Else doesn’t, the stiffness of the acting (particularly Minichmayr’s) undermined any identification I might have felt with the story because I simply didn’t believe that these people were a couple, and I especially didn’t believe Gitti when she (repeatedly) begged Chris not to leave her.

Every time something interesting threatens to happen the film works against it. Gitti and Chris meet a couple who have invited them on a boat tip. These people are never seen again, Gitti and Chris never go near a boat. Gitti and Chris have dinner with another couple; Hans (Wagner) and Sana (Marischka) and Gitti essentially spends the entire dinner abusing them. Nobody says anything. The next time they have dinner Gitti threatens Sana. Nobody says anything, and Hans and Sana go home. It’s almost as if Ade has decided to evade drama at every turn.

Every scene is brutally overextended, speaking to a meandering, improvisatory style and an unwillingness to edit. Worst, perhaps, is a scene in which Gitti, Chris, Hans and Sana listen to a terrible song together. It goes on and on and fucking on, I wondered if they were just going to sit there for the whole damn thing. Everyone Else is a mind-pulverisingly tedious film, two hours that seem to last forever. Don’t waste your precious time on it, spend it with someone you actually like instead.

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