Duel au Sommet


Philipp Stölzl :: Germany, Switzerland, Austria :: 2008 :: 2h

Two young provincial army recruits in an early Nazi Germany, are challenged to climb up the Eiger. The mountain had never before been successfully scaled from the north face (Nordwand) and it would have been the perfect introduction for the showcase 1936 Nazi Olympic games in Berlin. While the propaganda machine waits in a five star hotel next to the mountain, the competing teams go up.

The advancement of the climbers Toni (Benno Fürmann) and Andreas (Florian Lukas) dangling from the icy rock is cut-up with scenes from the extravagant hotel down below, where we also find Toni’s childhood love Luise (Johanna Wokalek), as the aspiring (photo-) journalist. She is there with her Berlin boss, who oscillates from charming to Nazi and back again throughout the film. The contrast between the ostentatious luxury of the hotel life and the harshness of the mountain works beautifully, most of the time, although the real strength of the film is mountain photography.

Not only is the daunting steepness of mountain wall impressively portrayed, the unpredictability of its ascent is too. The men against the elements, with their frozen woollen mittens and home-made pegs give a taste of realism to mountain-climbing. The movie gives a taste of the excitement and immense difficulty of climbing, even if here it is enveloped in an air of rashness.

Bizarrely enough, for this day and age, the story has the feel of a Nazi propaganda film. The film is dominated by the heroism of the climbers. The subtle difference is perhaps that one of the two, Toni, is not in it for the glory but for the love of climbing. But even if they are not both climbing for their medal from Hitler, it is their courage and “noble savage” spirit which shines – not only doing their national duty of serving the Führer in his army but also having that unbreakable masculine outdoor courage in which the party prides itself.

When they accept the challenge, going to Switzerland by bicycle (700km!), we are shown two other teams which conclude that the weather conditions make the trek up impossible. It is curious that different teams of experienced climbers would have such divergent opinions on whether or not you can go up, but there you have it. It could have been dismissed as a tension builder, if it was not that the two teams which considered it reckless were the French and Italian teams, and those which considered it feasible were the German and Austrian teams. And then we discover that the Austrians are bungling amateurs. It all sounds painfully like a Nazi plot, but there is one other message which finally leaves the after-taste as you walk out: the futility of the pursuit of glory.

In the end, Duel au Sommet is about a mountain and a group of climbers. And it is there where the film excels. If you’re ready for icy rock and avalanches, you can not get much closer to the climbers than in this one. But be warned, the tip of your couch will seem like too close to the edge.


Nous, les Vivants

Du levande

Roy Andersson :: Sweden, France, Germany :: 2007 :: 1h34

A fluid succession of minimalist static-camera scenes exposing the human condition in an abstracted Swedish city. The scenes do not make up a coherent story-line, but rather combine to show different sides to our existence. And that existence is not a particularly joyful one. It is Nordic-ally absurd. Theatrically comical. But mostly, we are portrayed as painfully selfish and self-centred. There are many characters, but after an introduction you will never know if you will see them again. Perhaps they will even talk to you if they come back, or some of them come back as side-characters in someone else’s scene. Dream and reality alternate indistinguishably in Andersson’s sterile pale green-beige modernist world.

To take the opening scene: A man is sleeping on a couch in an office, his back turned to us. We hear a train ride by outside. Nothing happens. We have the time to look around the room. The colours have all faded into what will be the film’s dominant beige. Everything looks as if it has been drawn with colour pencils, especially the dreary urban view from the open window. Some confusion installs itself in us, when we realise the table must be real, but the computer on his desk could actually be drawn on. Our confusion takes us to the opposite wall, where we prophetically find a  reproduction of Picasso’s Don Quichotte.

Just as we are developing our taste for the absurd, we notice that the sound of the passing train must be related to the blowing of the curtains. But is the train then passing through the street? The proximity of the sound and the view from the window do not seem to coincide. Is this even possible? But as we are wondering about the correlation, all of a sudden, the man on the couch wakes up startled by a dream. The bolding, moustached man is out of breath. Visibly distressed, he tells us that he had had a nightmare. He dreamt that bombers were coming.

From one scene to another, we are taught a lesson in humility before life, as a plea for a little more understanding for our fellow human beings. We are obliged to take our lives as it is presented to us, which is filled with imperfections as is so poignantly expressed in a scene of a woman praying for the forgiveness of others. But the sins of those which make up our society are not only exceptionally well identified, but also so many that the priest is obliged to get her to stop so that he can up close the church for the night! As you will have understood, this is a gem of a film. Make sure you are ready for it so that you can grant it the attention it deserves. It is one of those films which can change your life.

The Reader

The ReaderThe Reader
Stephen Daldry :: USA, Germany :: 2008 :: 2h03

Germany. 1958. The bright Michael Berg is only 15 when he meets a woman in her mid-30s, Hanna (Kate Winslet). She is an introverted, distant, sad character who takes advantage of the presence of the young man to start a sexual relationship. Their meetings are quickly transformed into a reading-for-sex exchange, which brings some emotion into Hanna’s empty life. But one day, she is gone without a word. Years later, when Michael is studying law at Heidelberg, he finds himself in a courtroom where he sees Hanna again: but this time, accused of an atrocious war crime.

The movie mostly brushes over Hanna’s exploitation of Michael, although her inappropriate relationship with the impressionable young Michael destroyed the rest of his emotional life, as is often the case with the abused young. He managed to build up a relationship years later which turned into a failed marriage, followed by an incapacity to be a real father to his daughter. But as the tragedy of his vacuous love life unfolds, he never points a accusative finger at Hanna, as he unhappily lives in the Stockholm syndrome. Partly because she has done worse. Much worse.

In contrast to the indifference the film shows with regards to the ruins of Michael’s life, the brutish Hanna is placed centre stage. Half way through the film we are already in the courtroom, to hear what she had done during the war. The proud, unsophisticated Hanna naively answers the questions as if from a confused post-war generation. As with the abuse of Michael, she is not only unrepentant, but seemingly oblivious to the damage she has done. The only reason we can find for her motivation, besides her cold simple character, is her covering up of her secret.

Hanna holds a secret, which is given to us already in the first quarter of the film, which determines most of her actions. This superficiality hidden behind her pride, she defends with her life. In fact, when pushed, we see that it is more important to her than her life itself, or, for that matter, the lives of others. Why this is so important to her, or from whence this comes is never answered. The unveiled secret is, by itself, too superficial to explain anything.

But there is another twist. As we too know her secret, as does Michael (although for such a bright young man it took him surprisingly long to figure it out). During the trial, he considers shedding her secret despite her explicit will to keep it hidden. In betraying her, she would have received a considerably reduced sentencing. In staying silent, she would live in prison with her pride intact. Michael respects her decision, which is very noble, but we still do not know why she is putting herself though all this, other than the most likely thesis that she is just stupid.

Hanna, who has spent her life with literature, is peculiarly enough incapable of any poetic words above the painfully simple. And that is what you are watching. I would not recommend sitting through two tedious hours of this only to be left depressed and empty at this unfinished, awful story. See what else is playing.

Atomik Circus

Atomik CircusAtomik Circus, le retour de James Bataille

Didier Poiraud, Thierry Poiraud :: France, Germany, UK :: 2002 :: 1h30

A small dusty town far removed from civilisation prepares for their annual party. The pack of village oddball tooth-missing outcasts is run by Bosco, the owner of the local hotel/ nightclub. His daughter is to be the leading star of the event’s talent show, the sexy singing Concia (Vanessa Paradis), who dreams of nothing else than to make it big. Just as the event begins to take shape, Stuntman James Bataille (Jason Flemyng) shows up on the scene. He spots Concia. Concia spots James. The father Bosco sees the whole thing unfold before his eyes and can barely contain his rage…

When the stuntman slips up, Bosco grabs his chance and has James sent away for a long time. But James gets lucky, escapes and is on his way back to Concia. At that same time, however, there are two other unlikely elements on their way in. A slick city-boy scoundrel whose vintage car needs repairs and whose eye has fallen on the innocent charms of Concia. As he is homing in, a flock of extra-terrestrial octopus and other dimensional spinning ninja stars descend on the dust bowl for a carnage. The volume of the rock and roll gets turned up and a B-film orgy of limb-cutting extravagance splashes out onto the screen.

Atomik Circus is an instant cult classic, bursting with originality, absurdity and is insanely funny. As it mixes genres, it is hard to categorise as you are still laughing from one scene as you are thrust into the absurdity of the next. You realise very quickly that bringing in your innate logic will only make matters worse in this world. After a while you even notice that you have no idea in which country we are in, as the characters speak a provincial French but find themselves in a run-down contemporary far west. That estrangement is further amplified by the constant unexpected reactions of the characters who remain stoically placid in the face of insult, injury or the downright ridiculous.

It is hard to believe this is a first movie for the Poiraud brothers, but easy to believe it is based on their own (unpublished) comic book. That no doubt also helped the angles of the photography and the movement of the filming, which runs in with the actors to where the action is. The special effects, photography and the avant-guard (Little Rabbits) music all contribute to this brilliant absurd stationary road movie. A fantastic late night film which will transport you into an alternate reality, one with a lot of humour and a good doses of the surreal. Do not miss it.

La Vague

La VagueDie Welle

Dennis Gansel :: Germany :: 2008 :: 1h48

High school teacher Rainer Wenger (played by Jürgen Vogel) is assigned a week long teaching course on autocracy. His students bore at the thought of talking about the Nazi’s again and are convinced a fascist rise to power would no longer be possible in contemporary Germany. Rainer looks at the motley group of students before him, and embarks them into a movement, baptized the Wave, which will show them how fascism rises.

The story is based on the 1967 events in California, of high school teacher Ron Jones’ demonstration of how the Nazi’s could come to power. This movie, which follows the famous experiment, is set in a contemporary, affluent German town. The story is so well known, that not only do you pretty much know how it will all unfold, you can not help but wonder how come the students do not know the story if it is set in the here and now. And then there is the whole route from class today to the autocratic group – it is all so naive. Would they really not see the parallel between themselves and the Nazi films and anti-Nazi speeches they have been bombarded with throughout their youth? And all of this in a week?

La Vague is like a teenage re-run of a story you already know, with a moral you already know. Even though it runs at close to 2 hours, it does not offer any new insight into fascism, politics or human psychology. The political vision portrayed is simplistic and does not help to understand the challenges faced by those living under autocratic rule today. Or, closer to home, the film does not address the subtitles of the democratic/ authoritarian balance faced by many nations today. Unless, by some unlikely series of coincidences, you have missed out on the whole story and need a (relatively) quick fix, I would miss out on this one.

35 Rhums

35 Rhums35 Rhums

Claire Denis :: France :: 2008 :: 1h40

The quiet Lionel (played by the cool Alex Descas) lives with his grown up daughter Joséphine (newcomer Mati Diop) in a comfortable, albeit somewhat sterile, grey, contemporary apartment in a Parisian suburb. Life has unfortunately taken away Lionel’s wife, and left the two-person family in a state of tranquil solitude, where the father and daughter lean on each other in the big wide world. This outside world is there, as their entourage, but they keep it at bay. Lionel knows they can not continue living like that indefinitely, and one day he will have to let his daughter go, to live her own life, but silently he hopes that that day will be far off. When their upstairs neighbour Noé, who has always been there, announces that he will leave, Joséphine gets angry. It is at that moment that she too realises that the world around her can not be forever frozen. It is time to look ahead.

The small family is running on a borrowed time, but happy to be together while they still can. They are compared to Gabrielle, the family friend, who lives in hope and the afore mentioned neighbour Noé, who lives, disorientated, in painful past of his parents’ death. Both of them cling to Lionel and Joséphine for their stability, for the calm love they share. As a viewer, you can not help but feel that Lionel “should” be living with Gabrielle and Joséphine with Noé, as that would be a more natural state than a grown-up girl living with her father. But of course, there are no rules to who who should be living with who. Or are there? When Lionel and Joséphine look to their future, what do they see? This in between state, at the end of the close-knit family life and the starting of your own, is the playing field of the film.

35 Rhums, is a very slow movie with a close attention to detail, reminiscent of Claire Denis’ Vendredi Soir. We see what is going on, through the actions of the characters, leaving very little to be said. The consequence of such an approach is that you have to slow down the pace, to allow the audience time to take in those details. There lies the risk, and although I was taken in by characters, the “normal” gestures or running of the train through the urban landscape scenes are a little too customary to warrant such an exposure. Whether or not this will bother you is hard to judge, but you will need to be a bit indulgent.

Racially, the movie is quite a curiosity. Lionel is black and his wife was white so their daughter, evidently, is métis. So far all is normal. Joséphine’s love interest and upstairs neighbour Noé is white. The family friend Gabrielle looks Caribbean. Still fine. Then we get to see his colleagues at the railways, the SNCF, and they are all black! Is there an SNCF line which hires only staff of African or Caribbean descent? Not very likely. And then there is Joséphine’s university: the professor and all the students are black! Not even at the university of Martinique, where most people are black, is it an easy feat to write yourself in for a course where not a single white or other raced student has written himself in. What is the point of this bizarre image? Even if they were part of some community (e.g. Caribbean), then that would make more sense showing it in opposition to another French community (say mainstream or Chinese) rather then an artificial submersion. But they are not part of a subculture (no more than their own individuality) nor are the SNCF colleagues or the students. It is a strange touch which is unrealistic and seemingly without purpose.

Overall 35 Rhums is a carefully crafted film well worth its time, despite its weaknesses. Make sure you are not tired when you go it, to be able to take in the rhythm, as you are taken along the tracks in the Parisian behind-the-scenes. Lionel and Joséphine will linger with you long after the lights are back on.



Bryan Singer :: USA, Germany :: 2008 :: 1h50

The movie opens in Tunisia, during World War 2. We see Colonel Claus von Stauffenburg (Tom Cruise) writing that he is appalled by mass murder of Jews, by military command and his realisation that he can not find a single general to oppose Hitler. After being wounded by an air-strike, he is flown back to Germany, where he is called on to join a conspiracy against Hitler. Von Stauffenburg becomes the key figure in a wide plot by many senior officers to kill their leader. The plan was to execute Hitler’s own last line of defence -operation “Valkyrie”- which was to mobilise the reserves which were there to guard Berlin and Hitler himself in case of an Allied attack. By ingeniously modifying the operation to cut the SS out of the loop, the conspirators could use the very troops which were there to guard Hitler to stage a coup. Of course, Hitler does not die in the attack on his life, and the Valkyrie plan backfires on the hearing of the Fuhrer’s voice.

This is an exciting film about a daring rebellion, which ends badly – 200 executions for treason and many more arrests. Although the heroic story is well known, the film none the less succeeds in showing who was there, how their visions differed and how the events unfolded. The collective fear of the Nazi regime they themselves were a part of stands in stark contrast to the openly critical stance of the senior officials in the rebellion. The mixture of fear and dedication to the greater national cause transpire through the characters.

In Claus von Stauffenburg himself the dedication is the most remarkable, as he comes from a privileged aristocratic and military background. He risks his life and that of his family with the hope of saving millions around Europe, knowing fully well that the Allied landing in Normandy is the beginning of the end of the war. A swift end to the Nazi regime would not only save many, many lives but also permit a peace negotiation. Some of the other conspirators are in there for the ideal, to show they do not agree, to show the world after the war that Germany was not only Hitler’s Germany.

There are quite a few impressive scenes. When Von Stauffenburg is recruited by the Berlin conspirators, the conversation takes place on the benches of a Church. As Von Stauffenburg was a devout Catholic, the moral worth of his treason is not taken lightly. As they separate, we see that the roof of the gothic cathedral has been blown off, with a cloudy blue evening sky shining in.

We see Hitler as a frail hunchbacked old man who tries to pierce through every officer near him to single out the traitors. We are shown elaborately how hard it is to get to him, and how high up in the military ranks the conspiracy is. None the less, the devotion of the military majority, or their fear, eventually causes the failure of the plot. A plot which so nearly succeeded. A tragic and brave story, in a past so uncomfortably close by. Brilliantly constructed story board and excellently made. No need to hesitate to go in, if you have not done so already.