First, we’d like to send our weekly Thank You to Wandering Through the Shelves for encouraging us to broaden our horizons. Because one can’t survive on a diet of Office Space and superhero movies alone, this week we tried to catch up on the German-language movies that we’ve missed. I for one had some serious catching up to do. If not, I would have been stuck picking Das Boot or something.
I re-watched Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009) to keep its complex themes and narratives fresh enough in my mind to be able to write about it. As I struggled once again to read the subtitles camoufalged by the black and white background, I thought about the impact that Haneke’s sadistic Funny Games (1997) had on me. A few months ago, I blasted Haneke’s rationale for his brutal and twisted home invasion story. While at first I resented being shamed for sitting through torture porn, I now appreciate the film for what it made me think about and the discussions it inspired with some of you. Also, while at first I was struck by the film’s sadism, now in retrospect I find myself admiring its restraint.
I’m only just now getting around to 2007’s Oscar-winning The Counterfeiters. Stefan Ruzowitsky’s film tells the true story of a counterfeiting operation within within a concentration camp manned by Jewish prisoners forced by the Nazis to make loads of fake currency. The counterfeiters face a dilemma. Helping the Nazis complete their mission could help them win the war bu failing to meet their deadline could get them executed. Not all the prisoners agree on how to proceed and the tensions between them separate this from other Holocaust movies by focusing on the characters and their complex thoughts and feelings.
Finally, Revanche (2008) tells the story of a cop who kills an accompliceto a bank robbery in the line of duty and the dead girl’s bank robber boyfriend who has sworn revenge. The cop’s wife gets caught in the middle Departed-style. There’s nothing sexy about being either a cop or a crook in this movie and nothing exciting about using your gun. The weight of a single act of violence is felt by everyone involved throughout the movie as both men carry a crushing feeling of guilt with them everywhere they go. Revanche means both revenge and new beginning. This movie’s about both.
Screw you, German language films. I waded my way through Metropolis (a 1927, 2.5 hour black and white non-talkie monstrosity about “the future”) and A Coffee in Berlin (a greasy, effeminate James McAvoy lookalike whines his way around cafes), and bits and pieces of The Blue Angel (Marlene Dietrich failed to inspire) and Christiane F. (mostly a David Bowie tribute) and I decided, fuck this, I’m just gonna talk about Werner Herzog instead.
Herzog is a German film director, producer, screenwriter, author, actor, and (apparently) opera director, considered to be one of the greatest heavyweights in New German Cinema. Roger Ebert once said that Herzog “has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons or uninteresting. Even his failures are spectacular.”
At age 14, he was inspired by an encyclopedia entry about filmmaking, which he claims gave him “everything I needed to get myself started” as a filmmaker – well, that plus the 35mm camera he stole from the Munich Film School. Oh, sorry, Werner, “I don’t consider it theft—it was just a necessity—I had some sort of natural right for a camera, a tool to work with.” Artist, thief, sometimes both.
I know him and love him especially for his documentaries. In fact, Grizzly Man might be the weirdest and most spectacular documentary I’ve ever seen. It’s about this grizzly bear “enthusiast” Timothy Treadwell who loved them so much he decided to live among them. He believed himself to be to be the Jane Goodall to bears, spending something like 13 summers with them, but he was also kind of an idiot, shooting Steve Irwin-like footage that no one asked for while ignoring the number one rule that even children know about bears. You need to watch this film. Ebert, delighted and appalled by the film, said that Treadwell “deserved” Herzog.
Herzog once promised to eat his shoe if Errol Morris finally finished a film project he’d been working on for years. In 1978, when Morris’ film Gates of Heaven premiered, Werner publicly cooked then ate his shoe, an event capture and made into a documentary by Les Blank (called Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe). Herzog hoped to encourage others to tackle incomplete work, but he could never be mistaken for a slouch himself.
In Into The Abyss, Herzog changes direction a bit. There’s not much narration, and he doesn’t appear on-screen. Instead, he lets a convicted murderer on death row tell about the crimes he says he didn’t commit just 8 days shy of his impeding execution. The film doesn’t dwell on guilt or innocence. Although Herzog is upfront about being anti-capital punishment, the movie is mostly apolitical but seeks simply to contribute to the conversation.
Werner Herzog always picks interesting subjects to study, but he himself is nothing short of a fascinating one himself.