Fata Morgana (1971)

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It’s not Morgan le Fay but it could be witchcraft or sorcery of sorts. In the sense explored in Werner Herzog’s film it’s a mirage or optical phenomenon that’s observable just over the horizon with objects variously stretching or compressing. This mysterious swirling film consists of pictures of the Sahara accompanied by a narration (which is occasionally frankly nutty) spoken by critic and curator Lotte Eisner, Wolfgang Büchler and Manfred Eigendorf and songs by Leonard Cohen, Blind Faith and the Third Ear Band plus music by Handel, Mozart and Couperin. Divided into three sections – Creation, Paradise, The Golden Age (which breaks into the surreal) – it becomes rapidly apparent that this is a highly ironic disquisition on the future of mankind. If you think this good earth is Paradise – and this was shot 50 years ago mostly from a VW camper van – then you’re clearly being misled as Part III demonstrates. Herzog has said of the film that it takes place “on the planet Uxmal, which is discovered by creatures from the Andromeda nebula, who make a film report about it.” So it’s an exploration of our dying world from the perspective of science fiction. Extraordinary, visionary work from one of the great filmmakers with cinematography by Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. The mythic wellspring of the Herzogian universe. Invisible is the face of the earth

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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

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

Toni Erdmann (2016)

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You have to do this or that, but meanwhile life is just passing by.  Corporate strategist Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) is busy at her job in Bucharest and reluctantly has to spend time with her estranged father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher divorced from her mother, who apparently returns to Germany but instead adopts an outrageous disguise and poses as her CEO’s life coach, Toni Erdmann …  How are you supposed to hang on to moments? A rip-roaring German comedy? Surely you jest! In a way. This comedy drama slayed all comers a couple of years back and despite overlength (you wonder at times what Billy Wilder would have done with his rapier wit, wisdom and speed with such material) this hits so many truths with such mortifying behaviour and courage that you forgive writer/director Maren Ade’s liberties and go with the mad dad – as, eventually, Ines decides to do. This after all is a guy who didn’t even tell her his beloved dog died – and we find out about it when he lies on the dog’s bed in the garden. He gatecrashes her business functions and regales assorted bigwigs with tall and taller tales in a toupee and false teeth. When she lets go of her own inhibitions (not too many of them, to be fair, as the sex and drugs scenes prove) and goes with her father’s adopted persona, unleashing the beast within, you’d cheer if it wasn’t all done in such a low key, realistic fashion. Truly the difference between business and personal in this mansplaining environment is don’t show, don’t tell the truth. The naked team building scene is jaw dropping. And the performance of a Whitney Schnuck (sorry, Houston) favourite is a high point. For some. Intriguing stuff, with an undertow of loneliness rarely explored in cinema and so relatable to anyone who’s ever been embarrassed by their parents.   I don’t want to lose my bite

The Tin Drum (1979)

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There once was a drummer. His name was Oskar. He lost his poor mama, who had eat to much fish. There was once a credulous people… who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really… the gas man! There was once a toy merchant. His name was Sigismund Markus… and he sold tin drums lacquered red and white. There was once a drummer. His name was Oskar. There was once a toy merchant… whose name was Markus… and he took all the toys in the world away with him. Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent) is a very unusual boy born in Danzig in 1924, after the city has been separated from Germany following WW1. Refusing to leave the womb until promised a tin drum by his mother, Agnes (Angela Winkler), Oskar is reluctant to enter a world he sees as filled with hypocrisy and injustice, and vows on his third birthday to never grow up as he watches his mother take her cousin Jan for a lover and she becomes pregnant – but by who? Miraculously Oskar gets his wish when he throws himself down a staircase.  His talent for breaking glass when he screams garners him attention. As the Nazis rise to power in Danzig, Oskar wills himself to remain a child, beating his tin drum incessantly and screaming in protest at the chaos surrounding him as his mother dies, his father takes a new wife who has a baby Oskar is convinced he has fathered and Hitler takes over while Oskar decides to join a travelling circus and entertain the Nazi troops in Paris … Günter Grass’ stunning 1959 novel was adapted by Volker Schlöndorff (and Jean-Claude Carriére and Frank Seitz Jr.) and he became the first German director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes with this transgressive, arresting and surreal impression of Nazism and the breakup of Europe. It’s mesmerising, brilliantly conceived and performed – Bennent is one of a kind – and once seen can never be forgotten. It is the blackest of comedies about the darkness in Germany and the way in which Polish people handled the transition to Nazism. The coda in real life – that Grass was found to have been in the Waffen-SS as a teenager after a lifetime of denial –  somehow just gives this greater heft. Amazing.

The Colony (2015)

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Aka Colonia. This is the film that infamously earned just £47 on its opening weekend in London last year. That means about 5 people paid to see it. Maybe it’s the subject matter. You don’t need me to tell you that anywhere Germans gather in large numbers there’s going to be a problem. They know it themselves at this point. This takes place in Chile in 1973 when the country was at the high point of unrest and General Pinochet was taking over in a vicious military coup. People were rounded up in the streets and identified by masked informers, and shot in football stadia. And caught up in this are Daniel (Daniel Bruhl) and Lena (Emma Watson), a German activist and photographer and his airline stewardess girlfriend who goes to his rescue when he’s kidnapped by the secret police and delivered to a torture camp run by cult leader Paul Schaefer (Michael Nyqvist). Daniel fakes disability to survive beatings and electrocution; she fakes religious fervour to gain admission to this supposed religious cult and finds herself inside a major circle of child abusers and … inbred Germans. There are a lot of them in South America. It’s not a very well observed drama and frankly despite its being rooted in truth – just watch the German Embassy sell them out when they eventually escape the madness, into more madness – it made me giggle at times.  Not, I fear, the desired response. Watson is not very good and Bruhl is doing what they say you should never do as an actor (remember Harrison Ford?!) – going full retard (well, sort of… ) The fact is this is actually the makings of a brilliant documentary, as the closing credits make clear:  the real camp was a centre for Government-ordered torture, the German Embassy was in collusion, Pinochet never admitted to it, and Schaefer wasn’t caught until 2002 – where? Argentina, of course, that other haven for Nazis. Hundreds of bodies were buried at Colonia Dignidad. We are far from Carmen Miranda territory.  Directed by Florian Gallenberger from a screenplay he co-wrote with Torsten Wenzel.

Heart of Glass (1976)

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Werner Herzog has made some incredible films and this exercise in a kind of allegorical mysticism earned its reputation not merely on its merits but because he had the cast hypnotised. We are in eighteenth century Bavaria. The village glassmaker has died and the formula has been lost;  the local baron is literally losing his mind because he has come to believe that the ruby glass has magical properties. Everyone else seems to fall into a sympathetic trance-like state. The local seer predicts the destruction of the factory by fire. Some of Herzog’s finest moments are within the first few minutes, with Popol Vuh’s music accompanying beautiful Super 8 landscape imagery; while the last sequence proves that there is a connection between Star Wars and this most interesting of filmmakers – I’m referring of course to Skellig Michael, off Ireland’s west coast, the furthest point in Europe before you get to the US. Herzog adapted Herbert Achternbusch’s story and Joerg Schmidt-Reitwein’s cinematography is splendid. Like most everything, better seen than written about.