Film review – Oh Boy (2012)

16 September 2013
Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling)

Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling)

Is the quest for a cup of coffee the perfect encapsulation of the growing meaninglessness or superficiality of modern life? Without reductively branding this pursuit of the trivial as something distinct to a particular generation, subculture or geographical cluster (let alone using the inane and smug ‘first world problems’ label), can anything useful be said about this phenomenon? German writer/director Jan Ole Gerster seems to think so and as a result has made Oh Boy, a film set in Berlin that blends observational humour with darker social critique about Germany’s collective memory. Inaction becomes the defining characteristic of the film, where the inability to act on important issues creates a condition where unimportant things take on disproportional importance. On the surface Oh Boy is an effective companion piece to Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012), but dig a little deeper and it is better considered as a reverberation of Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987).

As Oh Boy begins the twenty-something protagonist Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling) is established as somebody of inaction. Throughout the film the audience also discover that he has quit or dropped out of everything he has ever begun. Waking up next to his girlfriend, he cannot commit to the suggestion of seeing her later in the day and on the spot their relationship ends with a whimper. Niko heads back to his own apartment and spends the next 24 hours drifting around Berlin, going with the flow, turning up late to things, avoiding commitments and only responding to immediate situations. The one constant is his desire for a cup of coffee and the film’s running gag is how circumstances constantly thwart him in this regard.

Despite its self-deprecating tone, Oh Boy does not condemn Niko. For the most part he is a highly sympathetic, identifiable and likeable character to spend the film in the company of. The film’s jazz soundtrack, gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and deadpan humour create a romantic melancholic atmosphere that is highly enjoyable to indulge in, with Niko as a charismatic flâneur. Oh Boy does not necessarily criticise inaction, but it does explore the consequences of inaction in the form of generation divisions and how the past can haunt the present.

The consequences of inaction are depicted not just by the various disruptions and setbacks that Niko experiences, but also through the experiences of other characters. Niko’s friend Matze (Marc Hosemann) is revealed to have been a promising actor whose refusal to accepts jobs he felt were beneath him has reduced him to now asking former acting school friends for bit parts. More significant is the encounter Niko has with a drunk older man who tells him about an incident from his childhood during the Nazi era. The man relates a destructive incident that his father was involved in, yet at the time he mourned for how this incident would trivially affect him. This sting in the tail, which is saved for late in the film, demonstrates the full potential of the harm in pursuing selfish and immediate concerns at the expense of more important issues.

There are scenes in Oh Boy where characters do decide to act and the way those scenes are presented within the film offer interesting points of comparison. One scene involves Julika Hoffmann (Friederike Kempter), an old school friend of Niko’s whom he becomes reacquainted with. While being harassed by a group of teenage thugs Julika chooses to stand-up to them and when Niko assists her he is assaulted. Rather than serving as a warning about the consequences of intervening, this scene demonstrates that standing up to persecution and cruelty can come with a price, but it is still the nobler course of action. The other key scene is when Niko and Matze visit a set for a film about a Nazi officer who protects a Jewish woman. This also is an example of acting righteously at great personal expense, although the irony is that it is a fictional incident that Niko and Matze assume to be real because it is set during World War II.

The film about the Nazi officer (which echoes the Nazi themed film-within-the film from Wings of Desire) and the old man’s story reveal the ghost of Germany’s Nazi past within contemporary Germany. Like so many aspects of modern Germany’s society and culture, it displays an extremely sophisticated drive to acknowledge the country’s extremely dark past and recognise how continually remembering it is so essential. The main thrust of the commentary in Oh Boy is that complicity and inaction may be understandable under extreme circumstances, but not making a decision is in itself a decision and that will come back to haunt you. Niko’s relationship with Julika serves as a political-made-personal metaphor of this dynamic, where he is confronted with how hurt she is as an adult as a result of the way she was taunted at school by people like him who just joined in.

And yet again, Oh Boy is not necessarily waving its finger at Niko and his generation, nor at the older generation who were alive during the Nazi era. In fact, the film suggests a bond between these two generations that the generation in-between does not share. As well as empathising with the old man there is another scene where Niko shares a momentary connection with the grandmother of a drug dealer he and Matze visit. Perhaps Gerster is suggesting that Niko’s generation have an affinity with the older generation because by not growing up under the immediate cloud of Germany’s Nazi past, they are the first generation who are able to directly confront what happened.

Oh Boy seems to have less regard for the generation of Niko’s parents who are mostly presented as not necessarily unsympathetic, but as unreasonable and detached. Niko’s father is only depicted playing golf outside of Berlin and seems to be from a different world to Niko. Niko’s lonely neighbour is so self-absorbed that he mourns the fact that he no longer wants to have sex with his wife now that she has had a double mastectomy, without thinking of how she must feel. The psychologist whom Niko must meet in order to get his driver licence back is condescending, resentful and judgemental; using verbal traps and bureaucracy to foil Niko for no apparent reason.

If the older generation are still affected by the guilt of living during the Nazi era and the middle generation are somehow stagnant from the burden of having to grown up in the shadow of that horrific history, then Niko’s generation is the one with the most potential to move things forward. Despite the characterisation of Niko as aimless, his encounters with the older generation and ghosts from his personal past in the form of Julika, suggest the potential for growth based on the ability to confront the past. The constant shots of trains throughout Oh Boy serve both as eerie reminders of how so many Jewish people were transported out of Berlin during the Nazi era, but they also suggest a sense of progression. As Niko uses trains to move around Berlin he is constantly moving forward even if the direction is not yet fixed. There is a melancholic mood that underlies Oh Boy, but it is mostly fun, breezy and energetic, just like Niko and the generation he represents. His quest may simply have been for a cup of coffee, but it is a quest that results in enormous personal growth. That is hopeful and not in the slightest way trivial.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – The NeverEnding Story (1984)

2 April 2013
The NeverEnding Story: Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) and Falkor (voiced by Alan Oppenheimer)

Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) and Falkor (voiced by Alan Oppenheimer)

A year after the digitally remastered ‘print’ of Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986) was re-released in Australia, comes the digital re-release of another beloved children’s fantasy film from the 1980s: Wolfgang Petersen’s The NeverEnding Story (1984). It is a film that contains a significant nostalgia for Generation X who grew up imagining they were riding Falkor the luckdragon in between being traumatised by Artax dying in the Swamps of Sadness and having to endure the kids in the grade above them doing jazz ballet routines at assembly to the film’s theme song. As was the case with Labyrinth, not only does The NeverEnding Story hold up magnificently well, but it demonstrates a level of thematic and technical sophistication that elevates it above most films targeted at younger audiences that have come out since.

Loosely adapted from the first half of the 1979 novel Die unendliche Geschichte: Von A bis Z, by the German author Michael Ende, who came from Bavaria where the fantasy sequences of the film were shot, The NeverEnding Story presents the case for the importance and power of imagination. Like Labyrinth it celebrates classic fantasy and science-fiction literature, naming the works of key authors such as JRR Tolkien, Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Also similarly to Labyrinth, the protagonist of The NeverEnding Story, Bastian Bux (Barret Oliver), is an adolescent who prefers the world of fantasy to the real world. However, while Sarah in Labyrinth must learn to find balance between the real world of responsibility and the comforts of the fantasy world, The NeverEnding Story firmly presents the real world as one that Bastian legitimately would want to escape from. While Labyrinth is a coming-of-age story about an older child navigating the path between maturity and innocence, The NeverEnding Story is a far more straightforward tale about the joys of childhood wonderment triumphing over apathy.

The introductory scenes to The NeverEnding Story very efficiently introduce the real world as one of injustice, sorrow and loneliness for Bastian. He is bullied on the way to school, does not seem to have any friends and is emotionally distant from his father (Gerald McRaney) who struggles to understand that Bastian’s retreat into the world of make-believe is partly a way of coping with the death of his mother. Bastian is shown struggling to open a jar, establishing his lack of physical strength to reinforce how vulnerable he is. Even for children who have not been through the same level of trauma, Bastian is an endearing character who is very easy to identify with.

Bastian is an unusual protagonist, as the audience does not identify with him as the conventional hero of the film, but as a kindred spirit discovering the same story that the audience is. Similar to The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1987), the fantasy story is presented through the narrative device of it existing within a book in the film. (As a curious footnote, The NeverEnding Story has a line about young people preferring video arcades and The Princess Bride opens with the disinterested grandson playing a computer game, demonstrating how in the 1980s computer games were blamed for youth disengagement in a way that social media is today.) The key difference between the stories in the two films is that while the story of The Princes Bride is kept at an almost ironic arms length, the story of The NeverEnding Story spills into the real world.

Hiding in the dark school attic, which is filled with mysterious objects such as old theatrical costumes and science laboratory skeletons, Bastian occupies a transient space between the world of the book and the world he comes from. The gateway is the book itself, although the attic production design effectively suggests the scares and delights Bastian experiences as a reader. The film very effectively edits between the adventure story in the book and back to Bastian in the attic, to constantly remind the audience of his presence as the reader and to slowly introduce the idea that he can influence what he is reading. In a more practical sense, the cuts back to Bastian also allow the film to make large leaps in time and space in its depiction of Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) as he travels across the world of Fantasia to find a cure for the Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach).

The device of Bastian being able to influence the world of Fantasia and ultimately save it is integral to the key themes of the film. The Empress is sick due to the arrival of a force called The Nothing, which as it grows snuffs out all it comes into contact with, as if those things never existed. Over the course of the film Bastian and Atreyu learn that Fantasia is the world of human dreams and hopes, and as humans on a whole have stopped being imaginative, Fantasia is now under threat unless Bastian’s imagination is powerful enough for him to act in time.

In an astonishing breaking of the fourth wall moment, the film goes one step further to directly appeal to the cinema audience. After the Empress tells Atreyu that Bastian has been with him all along, she then speaks directly to Bastian through the pages of the book. And then she looks directly into the camera – so appearing to look out into the audience – and tells Bastian that like Atreyu he has never been alone as the cinema audience have been with him the whole time. It is a remarkable moment where the audience are directly informed that the story only exists because they are experiencing it, and stories such as this can only survive by us engaging with them.

The appeal for a childlike view of the world in place of cynicism and cold rationalism, certainly juxtaposes against the free market materialism of the 1980s, where anything without an obvious economic value was increasingly seen to be worthless. The aftershocks of the 1980s political climate and corporate culture born out of Reaganomics still resonate thirty years on, making the appeal for finding shared humanity through art, literature and cinema just as relevant now. One thing that is especially alarming about The NeverEnding Story in a contemporary context is how the dramatic scenes of The Nothing devouring Fantasia evoke images of extreme weather conditions as a result of climate changes. This creates a new context for the film’s heartfelt message about embracing new ideas and creativity rather than continuing on with business as usual.

The power of imagination message could have potentially been somewhat saccharine if it were not for the emotional complexity within the film. Atreyu is not just Bastian’s idealised self, but his alter ego whose adventures reflect the process Bastian undertakes to heal after loosing his mother. Early in the film Bastian’s father tells him to stop daydreaming and start facing his problems, which proves to be terrible advice since it is Bastian’s ‘daydreams’ through reading the book that allow him to heal. In this sense The Nothing also represents the emotional void left by the death of a loved one and by renaming the Empress – a maternal figure who benevolently rules Fantasia – with his mother’s name, the void is filled with new ideas and rebirth. Through Atreyu Bastian constantly encounters death, including the infamously upsetting death of Artax scene, while constantly being pursued by G’mork (voiced by Alan Oppenheimer), Bastian/Atreyu’s shadow who serves The Nothing. And the trials faced by Atreyu are ones that Bastian also must face, including having his self-worth tested (and almost failing) and being confronted by his true self, Dorien Gray style.

The magic of Fantasia would not have been communicated to the audience if it were not for the gorgeous production design, cinematography and optical effects used to create the fantasy world and its wondrous inhabitants. Watching The NeverEnding Story again in the age of digital effects draws attention to how far special effects have come in the last few decades. Compared to the photorealism of contemporary CGI special effects, the techniques used in The NeverEnding Story seem closer in spirit to the work of film pioneer Georges Méliès than even films made a decade after The NeverEnding Story was originally released. However, as Martin Scorsese demonstrated in Hugo (2011), those early effects possess a remarkable tangible visual pleasure that deliver a type of cinematic spectacle that digital technologies are yet to truly capture. So while the animatronics and puppetry used to bring Falkor (also voiced by Alan Oppenheimer) to life are clearly dated and even a little clunky, there is enough detail and movement in the luckdragon’s face to convey an enormous amount of humanity and character. Similarly, the combination of puppetry, dialogue and voice acting (Oppenheimer again) is all that is needed to make the Rock Biter’s ‘big, good, strong hands’ speech completely heartbreaking.

The NeverEnding Story remains a testament to the power of imagination and the type of inventive cinema that was possible in a pre-digital era. Dark, frightening and often upsetting, it treated children with respect and in return delivered an ultimately uplifting conclusion where everything works out alright, even if the weakest aspect of the film is the very final scene that more naively than maliciously indulges a childish revenge fantasy. It is a minor quibble for a glorious film that may on the surface seem like an episodic series of set pieces, but is in fact a rich and detailed exploration of a child’s mind as they travel from grief to renewed hope. And like Fantasia itself, such a film can only exist if there is an audience to see it and believe in it, making its remastered re-release one of the most welcome cinematic treats of 2013.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Lore (2012)

20 September 2012

Lore (Saskia Rosendahl)

In 2009 Michael Haneke made The White Ribbon, a striking study of the children who would become the generation responsible for Nazism as adults. The Australian/German co-production Lore could be regarded as an unofficial companion piece about the generation that followed; the children of Nazi sympathisers. Shot in crisp black and white with deeply focused depth-of-field, The White Ribbon visually presents an attitude of stark oppositions and order to represent an emerging fascist and authoritarian mentality. In a striking contrast Lore is misty, filled with dark colours and mostly shot with a handheld camera to suggest a lack of stability in post-World War II Germany where the war is lost and the country’s dictatorship has ended. This almost dreamlike view of the world belongs to the film’s protagonist Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), a teenage girl from a pro-Nazi family, who must travel across country with her younger siblings. Not only is her physical journey an arduous and difficult one, but her entire belief system is being turned upside-down as she begins to learn what the Nazis really stood for and the atrocities they committed.

Along with an excellent crew that includes cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and sound designer Sam Petty, writer/director Cate Shortland has created an evocative series of landscapes and soundscapes for Lore to move through on her quest towards safety, moral clarity and emerging sexuality. Her feelings for a mysterious and possibly dangerous young man Thomas (Kai Malina) further confuses her as she experiences desire as well as the racial disgust her parents instilled in her. Shortland uses devices such as low lighting and shooting through glass and water to create an uncertain and strange view of the world. Nothing is as it seems anymore.

Similar to the protagonist in Shortland’s previous feature film Somersault (2004) Lore is a tactile person who seems to need to touch things around her to make sense of what is going on. The sense of texture in the film is most effective when Lore touches the freshly glued photos of Holocaust atrocities. Her fingers come away with glue still stuck to them, which then remains as if the realisation of what the Nazis did has travelled physically through her and she is now stuck with the horrific knowledge.

Lore frequently wears blue and is often associated with water. The colour blue and water motifs are often used to indicate life, but water can also symbolise transformation and blue can also symbolise melancholy. In Lore both are also used to represent Lore’s strange innocence, despite her racist upbringing, and the potential for the tides of time to wash away people in its path. Water is used by characters attempting to cleanse themselves yet paradoxically it is often associated with violence.

There are so many more touches that make Lore the accomplished film that it is – Max Richter’s rhythmic score used to build intensity and Lore’s chapped lips making it look like she is wearing lipstick, linking her physical hardship to her sexuality. One remarkable early scene has the ash of incinerated Nazi documents raining down on Lore and her sister Liesel (Nele Trebs), evoking the stories told by people living in towns near concentration camps about the human ash from the ovens falling from the sky.

Lore’s sexual, intellectual and ethical coming-of-age journey is expressed by Shortland’s highly subjective rendering of the landscapes that Lore and her siblings physically move through, where they are confronted with the horrors of the Holocaust and war, and have to make awful decisions in order to survive. This is a film rich in symbolism and ideas, which would have been overwhelming or too obvious if handled by a less talented filmmaker. However, Shortland has done an extraordinary job making such a bleak story into a deeply fulfilling and beautiful film. Lore is an impressionist survival film and an existential war film, and also something truly singular and remarkable.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

7 October 2011

Cave of Forgotten DreamsThe Chauvet Cave in southern France is a site of extraordinary natural and cultural value, holding fossilised remains of long extinct animals and 32,000-years-old cave paintings, which are the oldest known examples of primitive art. Because of the fragile environment that must be maintained, very few people are allowed to enter. This nature and art documentary by Werner Herzog delivers an astonishingly privileged look at this subterranean time capsule.

Herzog includes background information on how the cave was discovered, interviews people researching the cave and includes details about the logistics of filming in such a restrictive environment, complete with Herzog’s idiosyncratic narration. But the real joy of the film is the footage of the cave art with various experts discussing the importance and meaning of the works. Most spectacularly, Herzog uses 3D cinematography to deliver a truly immersive experience and to capture how the early artists utilised the natural curves of the cave walls to create perspective. Perhaps most mysterious is how the paintings convey movement, using basic techniques that resonate centuries later with cinema audiences.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 390, 2011

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film reviews – Nobody’s Perfect (2008) & See What I’m Saying (2010)

21 August 2010

The 2010 Other Film Festival, screening in Melbourne from Wednesday 25 to Sunday 29 August at Melbourne Museum, is a festival focusing on people with disabilities. I’ve been fortunate to preview two excellent documentaries that are highly recommended:

Nobody’s Perfect

Nobody's Perfect: Kim Morton

Kim Morton

German filmmaker Niko von Glasow was born with malformed arms due to the side effects of thalidomide, a sedative prescribed to pregnant women in the late 1950s. Von Glasow’s film documents the process of putting together a nude photo shoot for himself and eleven other thalidomide affected people, many of who talk about their negative experiences being starred at. By taking part in the professionally produced and exhibited photo shoot, these people not only familiarises the onlooker with their condition but they also empowering themselves by setting the agenda under which they are looked at.

Von Glasow delves into the lives and motivations behind the various participants and uncovers various feelings of frustration, bitterness and anger. However, what makes Nobody’s Perfect such a strong film is the tremendous energy and humour that dominates. Von Glasow encourages everybody to be extremely frank about issues such as insecurity, guilt, depression and self-doubt, and he is certainly extremely frank himself. The results are frequently very wicked observations and self-deprecating humour. Nobody’s Perfect is a film that succeeds on many levels as while it is partially an awareness-raising film it is also tremendously fun and that’s mainly due to the eclectic bunch of people who reveal themselves physically and emotionally.

Read more reviews at MRQE

See What I’m Saying

See What I'm Saying: CJ Jones, Robert DeMayo, TL Forsberg and Bob Hiltermann

CJ Jones, Robert DeMayo, TL Forsberg and Bob Hiltermann

Hilari Scarl’s documentary follows four hearing impaired performers. There’s the popular deaf comic CJ Jones who wants mainstream recognition, struggling actor Robert DeMayo and Bob Hiltermann, the drummer in the deaf rock band Beethoven’s Nightmare. The most interesting story is that of TL Forsberg, a goth rock singer/songwriter whose relatively high level of hearing means that she struggles for acceptance within some aspects of the deaf community.

It is always fascinating having an insight into what makes people with an urge to perform tick, especially when you get to see how they juggle their artistic temperaments with the realities of everyday life. You certainly get a strong sense of this dynamic in See What I’m Saying across the four stories but you also get the added element of seeing the particular challenges that is faced by hearing impaired people. Scarl’s film also provides a wonderful insight into deaf culture so that See What I’m Saying is very much an inspirational and celebratory film. Jones, DeMayo, Hiltermann and Forsberg are all tremendously charismatic and talented performers, and you really get a sense of both their disappointments but also their triumphs.

Read more reviews at MRQE

Nobody’s Perfect screens at the Other Film Festival on Saturday 28 August 2010 and See What I’m Saying screens the day before on Friday 27 August 2010.

As for other films screening at the festival, Josh Nelson from Philmology has recommended The Sunshine Boy and Rita to me and Tara Judah’s preview of the festival at Liminal Vision also contains several great recommendations.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Soul Kitchen (2009)

15 May 2010
Soul Kitchen: Zinos Kazantsakis (Adam Bousdoukos) and Illias Kazantsakis (Moritz Bleibtreu)

Zinos Kazantsakis (Adam Bousdoukos) and Illias Kazantsakis (Moritz Bleibtreu)

In Soul Kitchen the acclaimed Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin once again explores Germany’s multicultural society but this time with comedy and light drama rather than the more heavy approach Akin is better known for in films such as The Edge of Heaven and Head-On. The action is centred in a modest restaurant located in an old industrial area of Hamburg that is becoming increasingly fashionable. The restaurant is owned by Greek-German Zinos Kazantsakis who transforms it into the hip place to be. To do this he is helped by a volatile gourmet chef and his brother who is on special leave from his prison sentence.

The grungy realism at the core of the film is compromised when the film indulges in tired clichés such as “it all comes together” montages, contrived plot developments and the inclusion of a conniving property developer as a stereotypical villain (although it is amusing to note that even Germans cast Aryan-looking blond Germans as their villains). Soul Kitchen is mostly a comedy/drama but at times suddenly lurches into slapstick, moments of really broad comedy (a scene where everybody at a party eats a powerful aphrodisiac is particularly painful) and other moments where the humour is just cruel. None of these styles of comedy are bad in their own right and many of them can be successfully integrated but in Soul Kitchen there are just too many gags that uncomfortably feel out of character with the rest of the film.

Soul Kitchen: Shayn Weiss (Birol Ünel)

Shayn Weiss (Birol Ünel)

All these faults are a shame because there is also a lot to like about Soul Kitchen. Akin really does create a wonderful sense of place with the scenes set within Zinos’s restaurant and its industrial surroundings. The soundtrack is absolutely fantastic and often lifts otherwise unremarkable scenes into moments of real joy. As Zinos Adam Bousdoukos (who also appeared in Head-On) is tremendously likeable and Birol Ünel (also from Head-On) as the volatile and proud chef Shayn Weiss is a lot of fun too, although underused, and as Illias, Zinos’s difficult brother, Moritz Bleibtreu (The Baader Meinhof Complex, Das Experiment, Run Lola Run) once again demonstrates why he is one of Germany’s most popular actors. Soul Kitchen may ultimately be a little unfulfilling, inconsistent and predictable but the moments and aspects that do work overall make it a film worth experiencing.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)

7 May 2009
Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck)

Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck)

Nobody could accuse contemporary German cinema of shying away from the past. Films like The Downfall, The Lives of Others and now The Baader Meinhof Complex have all explored very dark chapters of the country’s history, ensuring that the events depicted will be preserved as a constant reminder for future generations. In the case of The Baader Meinhof Complex, directed by Uli Edel (Christiane F., Last Exit To Brooklyn), it is the creation and the terrorist actions of the radical and militant leftist group the Red Army Faction (RAF) from 1967-1977 that is under scrutiny. The RAF had its foundations in the anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist student movements that were happening worldwide in the late 1960s and The Baader Meinhof Complex carefully reveals the conditions under which that rebellious sentiment led to violent action. The young generation of educated Germans knew all too well what could happen if state fascists tendencies were left unchecked and police brutality, an increase of rightwing journalism and rightwing violence against student protesters were all ingredients in turning their outrage into extremism.

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