Wings of Desire (1987)

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Aka  Der Himmel Über Berlin / The Heaven Over Berlin / The Sky Over Berlin. Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there? When did time begin, and where does space end? Isn’t life under the sun just a dream? Isn’t what I see, hear, and smell just the mirage of a world before the world? Two angels, kindred spirits Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), glide through the streets of Berlin, observing the bustling population, providing invisible rays of hope to the distressed but never interacting with them. They are only visible to children and other people who like them. When Damiel falls in love with wistful lonely trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin) whose circus has closed due to financial problems, he tires of his surveillance job and longs to experience life in the physical world. With words of wisdom from actor Peter Falk (playing himself) performing in a WW2 thriller whose cast and crew the angels are observing – he believes it might be possible for him to take human form and enter history ... We are now the times. Not only the whole town – the whole world is taking part in our decision. We two are now more than us two. We incarnate something. We’re representing the people now. And the whole place is full of those who are dreaming the same dream. We are deciding everyone’s game. I am ready. Now it’s your turn. You hold the game in your handThis beautiful benign allegory of the divided city of Berlin is of course clear to anyone familiar with the practices of the Stasi, who deployed one half of the East German population to spy on the other half:  when the Wall came down and the files were opened families and friendships were torn asunder. However a few years before that occurred, director Wim Wenders plugs into the nightmare of watching and being watched and makes it into a surreal dream in this romantic fantasy. I can’t see you but I know you’re here. It’s verging on noir with its portrait of a place riven by war and totalitarian rule, its acknowledging of the Holocaust and the overview of the Wall snaking through a post-war world. You can’t get lost. You always end up at the Wall.  A poetic film that’s so much of its time yet its yearning humanity is palpable, its message one of eternal hope. Shot in stunning monochrome by Henri Alekan, brought out of retirement and for whom the circus is named. I’m taking the plunge. Written by Peter Handke, for all the fallen angels on the outside looking in. Co-written by Wenders with additions by Richard Reitinger, loosely inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems. An exquisite city symphony that insists on the disrupting of image making, bearing witness, choosing life. With Curt Bois as Homer and Crime and the City Solution and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform.  Must I give up now? If I do give up, then mankind will lose its storyteller. And if mankind once loses its storyteller, then it will lose its childhood

Torn Curtain (1966)

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How do you like playing the dirty defector? During a trip to Copenhagen, American physicist and rocket scientist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) is attending a conference with his lab assistant and fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) and he picks up a telegram and tells her he is going to Stockholm. She follows him as he travels to Berlin where he publicly announces he is defecting to pursue his research for the Soviet Union. During a trip to a farm Michael meets a ‘farmer’ contact (Mort Mills) and it is clear that he is on a secret spying mission for the US. At the farmhouse he is watched by his official guard Herman Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) who suspects what he is doing and Michael and the farmer’s ‘wife’ (Carolyn Conwell) are forced to kill him. He travels to Leipzig and tells Sarah what is really going on. He goes to the University in an attempt to persuade Professor Lindt (Ludwig Donath) to share his secrets but the man realises Michael has little to share and calls the authorities and the chase to catch him with Sarah commences … I forbid you to leave this room! A Hitchcock film in which various getaways are staged using bicycles, buses and boats, this is the one that forced him to conclude he no longer wished to work with stars. And what stars! Newman, who had already played a variation on this role in The Prize and Andrews, the world’s favourite actress at the time. They were not the choice of the director but of moneyman Lew Wasserman who probably played too large a role in his career and contributed to what could be described as his decline in the Sixties. And it’s true that they are weirdly mismatched. Nonetheless there is ample opportunity for local actors, Lila Kedrova, Tamara Toumanova and Ludwig Donath to shine. Peter Lorre Jr even has an uncredited role as a treacherous taxi driver! Many feel this is one of Hitchcock’s lesser films and one might ask, given that he had originated the Cold War spy thriller genre with a masterpiece, North By Northwest, why he felt he had to make another one. But we forget how fascinating the Iron Curtain was, and not just to filmmakers. What an opportunity to look at a society where spying on people wasn’t confined to Government but permeated everyday life – most Germans were snoops and tattle tales, and not in a good way. The landscape is another reason – all that flat land. (A reminder of the crop dusting scene…). The opportunity to kill someone in virtual silence because there’s a taxi driver outside the door – and what a sequence that is, using whatever comes to hand in a farmhouse kitchen.  Hitchcock told Truffaut in their famous interview that the point of that was to demonstrate how hard it actually was to kill somebody, something that the conventions of the contemporary spy thriller avoided. There is a sense in which Hitchcock is playing his greatest hits – the set pieces are fun and  quite reminiscent of ones he did earlier. Perhaps that’s understandable given that this was his fiftieth film and projects he felt more deeply about had failed to get off the ground. Despite being inspired by the defections of famed British traitors Burgess and Maclean the script originally focused on the female character and so Irish writer Brian Moore whose gynocentric novels were so acclaimed did the original draft. At that point Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant were Hitchcock’s dream cast – a replay of old attractions. But when that changed he got Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall to rewrite and the story was radically altered but Moore still got sole credit. (Moore repaid the slight by caricaturing Hitchcock in his novel Fergus). There are some horribly clunky visuals that make it obvious this was shot on the Universal lot – very unlike a director who should have been at the peak of his powers. Is he deliberately making the artificiality of the genre more transparent?! Even more oddly, Hitchcock dumped Bernard Herrmann’s unsatisfactory score (which you can find on the DVD and watch it again) and commissioned John Addison to do the version used on the theatrical release – viewing this with a different musical accompaniment alters the affect (something that a Channel 4 documentary demonstrated twenty-plus years ago). Fascinating, suspenseful and altogether necessary and not just for Hitchcock completionists. You told me nothing! You know nothing!

Berlin, I love you (2019)

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I want to show you my Berlin. A male mime befriends an Israeli singer on the trail of her Jewish ancestor’s home. A broken hearted man is saved from suicide by a talking car. A mother rediscovers her humanity through her daughter’s work with refugees. A woman hits on a man in a bar who might be her long lost father. A young model runs into a laundromat from a rough encounter with a photographer to find herself in a hotbed of feminists. A teenage boy celebrating his birthday approaches a trans man for his first kiss. A Hollywood producer who’s lost his mojo finds beauty in a puppeteer’s characters. A Turkish woman drives a taxi and helps a political dissident … Nothing’s typical Berlin. Part of Emmanuel Bernbihy’s Cities of Love series (Paris, je t’aime, et al) this is a collection of ten interlinked stories reflecting its setting and its possibilities. Local, urban, international, witty, political, filled with dancers, puppeteers, models, actors, children, refugees, romance, sex, singers, cars, espionage, hotels and humanity, this is a well managed anthology which sustains its pace and shifting tone by integrating and overlapping characters, themes and visuals with admirable consistency. There are well judged sequences of politics and fantasy, a jokey reference to the Berlin Wall, a thoughtful acknowledging of the Holocaust, an homage to Wings of Desire, and a hilarious #MeToo sequence in a laundromat. This was the subject of the first ever city film (Berlin, Symphony of a Great City, 1927) and the trials and tribulations and changes it has endured and survived are acknowledged in many ways, from the foreign population to the briefly significant visual tropes without ever dwelling in the realm of nostalgia or physical division (there be dragons). It’s a defiantly modern take on the lifting of the spirit and navigates new aspects of living and sexuality and different kinds of contemporary problems ending on a (sung) note of hope. Delightful, surprising, dangerous, unexpected and varied, light and dark, rather like the city itself. Quite the triumph. Starring Keira Knightley, Jim Sturges, Helen Mirren, Luke Wilson, Mickey Rourke, Diego Luna. Written by Fernando Eimbcke, Justin Franklin, Dennis Gansel, Dani Levy, Massy Tadjedin, Gabriela Tscherniak. Directed by Dianna Agron, Peter Chelsom, Fernando Eimbcke, Justin Franklin, Dennis Gansel, Dani Levy, Daniel Lwowski, Josef Rusnak, Til Schweiger, Massy Tadjedin, Gabriela Tscherniak whose work is united by the beautiful cinematography of Kolja Brandt, production design by Albrect Konra and editing by Peter R. Adam and Christoph Strothjohann. This is Berlin. This is reality, right now

 

The Two-Headed Spy (1958)

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A man cannot control the circumstances of his birth but he can make a choice. In 1939 Alex Shottland (Jack Hawkins) has been embedded as a British agent at the highest levels of the German military since WW1 and is tiring of his role but is urged to continue by his fellow agent Cornaz (Felix Aylmer) who is posing as an antiques dealer. They carry on their meetings under cover of Shottland’s purported interest in clocks. The revelatioin of Schottland’s half-British origins raises the eyebrows of the obsessive and creepy Lt. Reinisch (Erik Schumann) who works as his assistant and he alerts Schottland’s superiors about a potentially traitorous connection to the enemy. Schottland falls in love with singer and fellow spy Lili Geyr  (Gia Scala) whose melancholic songs carry coded messages across the airwaves to the Allies.  Reinisch suspects their relationship is a cover just as the Battle of the Bulge is getting underway and Schottland struggles to communicate the plans to his real superiors I’ll come to your place any time you want me to and spend the night. The amazing true-ish story was based on J. Alvin Kugelmass’ book Britain’s Two-Headed Spy and although A.P. Scotland was an adviser on the production it’s not based on his real escapades. The screenplay is notable for being written by not one but two blacklisted writers, Michael Wilson and the uncredited Alfred Lewis Levitt. Hawkins is excellent as the net seems to be closing in and he has to endure Cornaz being tortured to death;  while Scala impresses as the slinky songstress with espionage at her heart. There are some terrific scenes at Berlin’s highest table with Kenneth Griffith emoting unseen as Hitler.  Taut storytelling, excellent characteristation, glossy monochrome cinematography by Ted Scaife and an urgent score by Gerard Schurmann combine to make this an enthralling spy thriller. Look quickly for Michael Caine as a Gestapo agent while Geoffrey (Catweazle) Bayldon is Dietz. Directed by André De Toth. Truth is allegiance

Cold War (2018)

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Time doesn’t matter when you’re in love.  In post-war Poland conductor and musicologist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are holding auditions for a state-sponsored folk music ensemble. Wiktor’s attention is immediately captured by Zula (Joanna Kulig), an ambitious and captivating young woman who is faking a peasant identity and is on probation after attacking her abusive father when he attempted to rape her. They commence a sexual relationship but Wiktor doesn’t want to incorporate more Stalinist propaganda in their productions and wants to escape to the West. Zula doesn’t join him when he escapes in Berlin but a couple of years later he finds her on tour in Yugoslavia where he is quickly removed back to his current base in Paris. Then Zula shows up and leaves her marriage and becomes a recording artist with his help. She can’t stand what he has become and flees to Poland the night her album is launched and Wiktor makes a tremendous sacrifice just to see her again … As far as we’re concerned you don’t exist. It starts with people singing folk songs, performed plaintively and sonorously against a mysterious monochrome backdrop which is rural Poland yet some images take a while to reveal themselves from abstraction. That’s all of a piece with the lives of these somewhat disembodied, disenfranchised individuals whose better existence is entwined with each other yet whose life together is messy, filled with bust-ups, disagreements, partings, border crossings, cultural preservation, propaganda and politics. Their identity – colonised, travelling, in denial – presents a kind of melancholy frankly incomprehensible to people who think they should be glad to be out of the hellhole of the Eastern Bloc.  Neither protagonist is especially likable and the underage relationship is at first shocking, even if she is sexually precocious. The gleaming black and white photography seems bleak at first but paradoxically heightens the romance because this is a film that rejoices in the possibilities of cities and how people can express themselves in one international language – music. Watching Zula finally let loose in the West to Rock Around the Clock is joyous, even if it further fractures her relationship. The architecture isn’t stressed but the common culture it expresses looms over the narrative – building styles, churches, bars, clubs, concert halls, the locations where this couple can find themselves and each other, over and over again. It’s sombre but passionate. Finally they wind up at a literal crossroads, decision made. Writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski traverses these ideas like a high-wire artist, never stooping to the obvious even if some of the melodramatic curves seem inevitable. When Zula tosses her eponymous record in a fountain and then takes off back to Poland it seems unlikely they can ever meet again. But Viktor returns to his home country only to be imprisoned? Well. If it wasn’t true, would you believe it? Yet that is what Pawlikowski’s own background looks like – complex, difficult, liminal, like all stories about affiliations and borders and political ideologies and exile. It’s about his parents. And it’s true. And it took years and years for them to get together and their relationship covers a continent of musical styles and idioms. Remarkable. Let’s go to the other side.

A Woman in Berlin (2008)

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Aka  Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin/The Downfall of Berlin. Find a single wolf to keep away the pack.  In April 1945 the Soviet Union’s Red Army arrives in Berlin defeating the last German defence. Its soldiers rape women of any age as they occupy the city. After being gang raped by a number of Soviet soldiers, the film’s anonymous woman, German journalist Anonyma (Nina Hoss), petitions the battalion’s commanding officer, for an alliance and protection to control the terms of her rape. From now on I will decide who gets me After initially rejecting her, married Ukrainian Lieutenant Andrei Rybkin (Eugeny Sidikhin) is seduced by the beautiful battered German woman. She manifests a cool, practical approach to her life, part of an informal community that develops among survivors in her apartment building. The officer subsequently protects, feeds and parties with her and her neighbours. Other women also take particular officers or soldiers for protection against being raped by soldiers at large which works until their husbands return. Rybkin comes under suspicion and is reassigned, who knows where …  My name doesn’t matter. The book by Anonymous (Marta Hillers) wasn’t published until 1959 and even then the account of the mass rapes (2 million plus) by the Russians was hard to bear so this adaptation has a twofold problem:  not turning it into an exploitation fest; and not being so melodramatic as to remove the nature of the horror and the pragmatic decision that women took to try to survive.  On that front at least it’s a success, a clear-eyed depiction of how life was. Watching rape used as a weapon in the rubble-strewn ruins of Berlin in revenge for what the Germans did in Russia is an unedifying experience. We step over the corpses of women to get a jar of jam. Hoss is superb as the worldly woman who has travelled and lived abroad yet also been a committed Nazi who is forced to use the only means she has to keep alive – a complex portrait of ambiguity proving she’s one of the best actors around. There are moments of humorous irony – her neighbour the widow has it away for a bit of salami, as she wryly observes. Hillers died in 2001 after which the book was republished and she was identified. She didn’t live to see this, which is a great pity. It’s a tough and grim story, brilliantly constructed and performed. Adapted by Catharina Schuchmann and director Max Färberböck. War and dying used to be men’s business. That’s all over

The Looking Glass War (1970)

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I’ve never been a spy before. It will be a new experience for me.  Polish defector Leiser (Christopher Jones) is lured into the world of espionage by a shadowy adjunct to MI6 run by Leclerc (Ralph Richardson) and Haldane (Paul Rogers) with the promise of British residency so that he can see his pregnant girlfriend (Susan George). Trouble is she’s aborted the baby and he drowns his sorrows with his training operative John Avery (Anthony Hopkins) before entering East Germany to clarify if blurred photographs from Hamburg are proof of a missile site. He pairs up with Anna (Pia Degermark) who wants out from the Iron Curtain and together they embark on a treacherous undertaking with high risks and mixed results … Never lean on your opponent.  Never lose your temper.  And why fight over a knife when there’s a gun under your arm? This adaptation of John le Carré’s novel by writer/director Frank Pierson starts with an intriguing encounter at an airport which winds up with a roadside death. Accident? This downbeat deconstruction of the spy’s life continues in the vein of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and its satirical intent is conveyed in that first sequence – the spy can’t get taxi expenses and loses the film he’s paid a pilot to smuggle, killed by a camper van sliding along the snowy road. The author claimed it’s the most accurate depiction of his own experiences in espionage – including a misplaced longing for the glory days of WW2, utter incompetence and the futility of much intelligence activity. However the tone of anti-nostalgia in this story of The Department’s ineptitude is sacrificed for a more straightforward (and duller) exposition. The classic character of George Smiley is dropped from the source novel. There are plenty of incidental pleasures however, not least the cinematography by Austin Dempster; Jones’ gear (like a forerunner of Robert Redford’s getup in Three Days of the Condor), all peacoat and steel-rimmed mirror shades; a rare performance by Elvira Madigan herself, Degermark; and a score that is both modish and interesting from Wally Stott (responsible for arranging Scott Walker’s first three solo albums) who changed sex two years later and became Angela Morley. Morals are a bitch on heat

The Man Between (1953)

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Any relief from life is unattainable wealth. After the fall of Germany, Susanne Mallinson (Claire Bloom) visits her doctor brother Martin (Geoffrey Toone), a major who has relocated to Berlin and married a local woman named Bettina (Hildegarde Neff). Susanne is curious about Bettina’s assignations with a man soon introduced to her as Ivo Kern (James Mason) who feigns romance with her. It transpires that he is Bettina’s former husband, a Nazi whom she and Martin had declared dead following his disappearance in WW2 but now alive and well and operating under a pseudonym.  Ivo is a former lawyer who participated in Nazi atrocities in Holland and Prague and is now selling his expertise to East Germans to kidnap and transport certain West Germans to the eastern bloc.  He agrees to a final kidnapping that fails, forcing his employer Halendar (Aribert Wäscher) to abduct Susanne by mistake. He attempts to redeem himself by helping Susanne escape, even though he must risk everything in the process… There isn’t a great deal of difference between our ages but there’s a hundred years in the way of life we have led. Harry Kurnitz and Eric Linklater wrote the screenplay from an original pulp novel (Susanne in Berlin) by Walter Ebert (as Lothar Schuler) and it’s a curious beast for the first third, with John Addison’s fascinating score doing much of the heavy lifting and the statuesque Neff bestriding the screen like a panther, while Bloom operates furtively, trying to find out more about her sister-in-law’s life and Ivo winning her over in an ice rink.  Director Carol Reed’s visual style (shot by Desmond Dickinson) asserts itself from the midpoint opera sequence onwards, with the canted angles, disturbing close ups and rain-slicked streets that distinguished The Third Man taking centre stage as a chase across the city commences. This post-war tale of politicking, betrayal and love across the international frontier against communism has a distinct personality and a tension all its own however, as the strains tell between the three adults – with a very young Bloom barely making the grade among these war-worn creatures – in a horrible Cold War setting with Mason cutting a tragic figure as a reminder of the man who fell at the end of Reed’s great Odd Man Out. Ivo’s helper, the little boy lookout Horst (Dieter Krause) betrays him, just as the boy betrays Ralph Richardson in The Fallen Idol; while the kidnap plot is from the original novella (also by Graham Greene)The Third Man.  Neff’s iconic role in Trümmer film The Murderers Are Among Us is recalled in her haunted presence; while the bicycling boy bears the shade of Italian neo-realism.  There are many good scenes but you won’t soon forget the extraordinarily erotic byplay between Mason and Bloom as she hides out, clad in skimpy lingerie and complaining of cold feet. In every sense, this is a film about history repeating itself in the rubble-strewn ruins of Berlin. The contrast between the Expressionist storytelling and the realistic setting is quite eyecatching, attaining the kind of poetry we’re more accustomed to seeing in French films from the 1930s, with secrets revealed from the whirling snow that the wind blows up from the blanketed streets. They were working too hard. I knew they weren’t real labourers

 

Christiane F. (1981)

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Aka Wir Kinder Vom Bahnhof Zoo. You’ll never forget her … In mid-1970s Berlin, an aimless teenager (Natja Brunkhorst) who lives with her single mother and sister in a social housing project falls in with a drug dealer Detlef (Thomas Haustein) after meeting at a nightclub where her hero David Bowie is performing. Soon her addiction leads her to hanging out with other junkies at Bahnhof Zoo subway station and then to a life on the streets… I only did it because I wanted to know how you feel. Adapted from tape recordings with the real-life junkie whose story it tells, this has cult written all over it. From the Berlin setting, the drugs, Bowie and the excruciating portrait of a beautiful child lost to sex and heroin and, well, rock ‘n’ roll, it’s tough stuff. Working from a screenplay by Herman Weigel and director Uli Edel adapting Kai Hermann and Horst Rieck’s non-fiction book, Edel directs with verve and a realistic grit. This is not an attractive experience despite the superficial elements of cool – its low budget, graphic sex scenes and shooting style place it in the exploitation realm while the classic score by Bowie (Station to Station, Boys Keep Swinging and unofficial theme song Heroes are the most famous tracks) and the great Jürgen Knieper give it a real kick. The cast are mostly non-professionals and the beautiful Brunkhorst is the only one who proceeded to an acting career. However watching dead-eyed kids having underage sex, shooting up and overdosing ain’t pretty and this squalid depiction of Berlin in the 70s is miserable – no wonder it cleaned up. A film that truly shocked upon release, it’s dedicated to Atze, Axel and Babsi, all portrayed here and all dead from heroin ODs.  A grim Euro-classic with a cameo performance by Bowie actually recorded in NYC.  I can’t get hooked if I just use a little, only once in a while. I can control my using

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

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Do you remember, Clive, we used to say: ‘Our army is fighting for our homes, our women, and our children’? General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), who’s overseeing an English squad of the Home Guard in 1943, is a veteran leader who doesn’t have the respect of the men he’s training and is considered an old duffer who’s out of touch with what’s needed to win the war. But it wasn’t always this way. Flashing back to his early career in the Boer War and World War I, we see a dashing young officer whose life has been shaped by three different women (all played by Deborah Kerr), and by a lasting friendship with German soldier Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) as he rises through the ranks of the British Army but now uncomfortable with the modern concept of ‘total war’… In Germany, the gangsters finally succeeded in putting the honest citizens in jail. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s portrait of a lovable man at sea with contemporary combat was incredibly contentious, disliked by Churchill, and cut to pieces so that it’s very rare to see it as it was intended by the talented pair whose satirical but sympathetic bent is at full tilt over 163 minutes with Livesey giving the performance of his career, ageing and irascible, but once a dashing young blade with the world at his feet. The character was created by David Low in his comic strip but Powell and Pressburger claimed this narrative grew out of a scene dropped from their previous film One of Our Aircraft is Missing and editor David Lean said it would be a good idea for a film. Beautifully shot, designed and told, with Kerr impressive (and credited for her three separate if complementary roles) as iterations of the ideal woman. The unlikely friendship between two honorable military men even as their countries are at war is distinctive and moving, commencing with a duel and then years later, when Theo seeks asylum from the Nazis he appeals to his friend, now a high-ranking officer in England. Possibly Powell and Pressburger’s greatest work, certainly their most ambitious, etched in compassion. Restored by Martin Scorsese and Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker. Clive, my English is not very much but my friendship for you is very much