Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities: Berlin & Noir

I've been missing my friends attending the Sundance Film Festival this week, but from what I can make out nobody's really seen anything earth-shattering there yet anyway. Or that's what it sounds like with those sour grapes in my ears, anyway. Meanwhile, I attended three terrific film programs at the Berlin & Beyond festival at the Castro Theatre last weekend. Two rarely-shown archival programs and a US premiere have more than made up for whatever I'm missing in Park City this week. And all three in one way or another worked as a warm-up to the next big festival at the Castro this week: Noir City 7.

The new film was Jerichow, my belated introduction to the work of up-and-coming director Christian Petzold. Though it contains none of the stylistic markings of classic noir, and its sunny small-town setting seems counter to the typical urban landscapes of true noir, Jerichow nonetheless classifies rather neatly as a neo-noir genre deconstruction, building on familiar themes of deception, betrayal and fate, in a fresh context.

And yet, the context is not such a stretch from the American crime films of the late 1940s either. Two common film noir concerns are the role of the war veteran in a peacetime society, and the economic options open to immigrants and other marginalized citizens under a powerful capitalist system. In Jerichow the war vet (Benno Fürmann) is back from serving with NATO forces in Afghanistan, and the immigrant (Hilmi Sözer) is a German Turk running a chain of modest eateries with his blonde wife (Nina Hoss). These three characters form a twisted triangle of intrigue that kept my rapt interest around each curving bend in the narrative highway. I'd very much like to see the film again to understand better how Petzold maneuvers expectations and subverts them.

Wim Wenders' Kings of the Road may feature stunning black-and-white cinematography by the great Robby Müller but its noir connection is undoubtedly the weakest of the these three: it's a rambling, often comic road movie set mostly in environments even less urban than those of Jerichow. There are plenty of detours without echoes of Detour.

Bruno (played by Wenders regular Rüdiger Vogler) travels in a 1.66:1 wide truck from town to town, repairing and occasionally operating the projection equipment in small cinemas, many of them reduced to porno house status on their way to complete obsolescence. After witnessing a spectacular, laughably failed suicide attempt by Robert (Hanns Zischler, 30 years before his role in Munich), Bruno invites him along for the ride, as long as he agrees not to swap stories.

Later on, Robert delivers to his newspaperman father a manifesto against the telling of stories and other verbal expressions. He delivers it nearly silently. Kings of the Road seems to be for Wenders a similar manifesto, identifying his brand of 1970s contemplative cinema as a media revolution in which a new generation could demand a voice even if it had no particular words it wanted to say. It's this formal strategy, which brought to my mind a kinship with Chantal Akerman's Je tu il elle (solidified by a post-screening chat with a more experienced Akerman-watcher), that makes Kings of the Road for me Wenders' best film, along of course with its cinephile-catnip inside peek at the mechanical processes of film exhibition.

So what's the noir connection? Again, it's the post-war thread- a different country in a different phase of soul-searching, but there's no doubt that World War II and the subsequent German Economic Miracle hang like a shadow over this film- the latter repeatedly critiqued as incomplete at best, not least by the Wenders' travel route along the border of West and East Germany. So even if it doesn't do so by the dramatic means of, say, Thieves' Highway or They Live By Night, perhaps it performs a similar function, questioning: "What good is prosperity if its handmaiden is destruction?"

The third film of the weekend is the one most readers probably are already quite familiar with: Josef von Sternberg's the Blue Angel. I'd seen it before myself, but this was my first viewing of the so-called "English-language" version prepared by UFA for export in the early days of talking pictures before subtitles caught on. This version is worth commenting on; at first I thought it ironic that an English-dialogue version would play a German-language film festival, while across Frisco Bay at the Pacific Film Archive the original German-language version will play on February 1 as part of a Sternberg retrospective. But watching the rare, unsubtitled 35mm print on Monday I realized the rationale for screening it at Berlin & Beyond: not all of the dialogue is in English, in fact a great deal is untranslated German. This is because, unlike most trans-nationally-set films today (at least those made in Hollywood), the English speaking is presented as if organic to the story. Emil Jannings' professor of English practices the immersion method in his classroom, and speaks German only briefly to a few side characters. Marlene Dietrich as Lola is explained to be a native English speaker (and her accent is nearly convincing most of the time), an excuse for other characters to eschew German while she's in the room. Incidentally, an even earlier Dietrich film called the Woman Men Yearn For will screen in Niles on February 7th.

I love how the morality play of the Blue Angel works as an advertisement for the talking picture. The respectable professional (Jannings) gets lured into a debased existence by his flirtation with that most disreputable of entertainments: the variety cabaret. But entertainment itself is not dangerous unless there is a live performer (Dietrich) to seduce the spectator in her dressing room. The solution is to watch these debauched performances on the safe surface of a flat screen, far from the sound stage where it was captured. One can experience the titillation without the risk of ending up in a clown suit.

There's no doubt that the Blue Angel is an important precursor to film noir. It may not be concerned with deception as a major theme, as most noirs do, but it is as packed with the noir quality of obsession as any film featuring a femme fatale. And of course the interplay of light and shadow prefigure the chiaroscuro that became so prevalent in 1940s Hollywood. The story of how Germany's film artists fled to America to darken our screens with a particularly noirish pessimism has been told more times than practically any founding myth. Data in support can be gathered with ease at Noir City 7, where a good many of the films had major creative roles filled by at least one expatriate of Germany or its film industry. Here's a partial list to close out for the night:

Robert Siodmak: director, the Killers

Fritz Lang: director, While the City Sleeps & Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Billy Wilder: writer, director, Ace in the Hole

Michael Curtiz: director, the Unsuspected

Hans Dreier: art director, Chicago Deadline, the Big Clock & Alias Nick Beal

Franz Bachelin: art director, Chicago Deadline & Alias Nick Beal

Franz Waxman: composer, the Unsuspected & Alias Nick Beal


  1. I know The Blue Angel is supposed to be a circe tale, but I've never quite bought that take. It seems to me that the people of the stage treated him a lot more respectfully than his boss, students or even his housekeeper. Its natural that would be as much as a draw as Lola herself to abandon his life for a new one.

    Maybe seeing the English language version would change my opinion.

  2. Interesting, shahn. Your interpretation seems quite appropriate, at least in regard to how Herr Professor gets sucked into the theatrical world upon his first visit. And I think it's consonant with my reading of the film as propaganda for talking pictures as a respectable alternative to the lowly niteclub.

    However, the initial inspiration for his visit to the Blue Angel is a titillating photograph of Dietrich. And his later outburst regarding the sale of these photographs indicates to me that he (at least consciously) sees Lola as the main reason for his attraction to this new life.

    Surely there's truth in both readings...