Sunday, September 25, 2011

The 49th New York Film Festival: Dreileben

Comprised of three occasionally interlacing, though separately authored and shot tele-visual features issuing from Germany's ever-vital "Berlin School," leading-light Christian Petzold's Dreileben - Etwas Besseres als den Tod (Beats Being Dead), Dominik Graf's Dreileben - Komm mir nicht nach (Don't Follow Me Around) and Christoph Hochhäusler's Dreileben - Eine Minute Dunkel (One Minute of Darkness), the broader Dreileben project grounds itself in the spatiotemporal narrative fact of a prisoner Molesch's (Stefan Kurt) escape from police custody, with each of the three successive films representing an increasingly intimate connection with the pivotal plot point. Occupying the same literal terrain (and overlapping temporality), the three Dreileben's explore very different generic territories and narratological focuses within what will prove a single diegetic world in which characters from one repeatedly make cameo appearances in the others. In this sense, the Eastern 'Berlin School' is making its best effort at commemorating the memory of Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski and his single-diegesis multi-part sagas - both The Decalogue (1989) and the Three Colors triology (1993-1994) are very germane to the latter-day trio - following more than a decade after the FDR-born Tom Tykwer began his own work of elaborating upon the former's idiom. Kieslowski, in other words, is once again proving to be an over-sized influence in his neighboring Germany, even as the tenor of modernist and postmodernist world cinema elsewhere appears less and less indebted to the maestro of multitudinous parallel narrative forms and especially to his very keen sense of filmic craft.

Few filmmakers working anywhere today (at least this side of David Fincher) have demonstrated as high and consistent a level of achievement in the latter regard, over the past decade, as has part one's writer-director Petzold. Beats Being Dead once again applies the director's highly composed, old-fashioned visual sense and horror film shock-effect repertoire - especially in the feature's expert sound design - to a narrative that like Petzold's outstanding Jerichow (2008), combines a socially and ethnically-tinged love-triangle with the suspense strategies of the thriller form. As young lovers Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) and Bosnian-immigrant Ana (Luna Zimic Mijovic) peregrinate through the magnificently crisp mixed evergreen forests that surround the eponymous northern German village - constant Petzold collaborator Hans Fromm captures the verdant exteriors and antiseptic hospital interiors in a saturated, hyper-detailed HD - Petzold cuts to a series of surveillance inserts of the frequently quarreling couple, which within the context of the larger project (and as a consequence of the set-ups' twinned rapid movements and over-dubbed guttural sound effects) emerge as unmarked point-of-view stagings from the predominately out-of-view Molesch. The trilogy's central figure indeed will remain peripheral, both spatially and also narratively, throughout much of Beats Being Dead's eighty-eight minute running time, with only a late, initially ambiguous on-screen appearance substantially breaking from this strategy.  

Petzold's feature instead centers on the burgeoning, and very sexy, romance between the young medical student Johannes and his new hotel-worker acquaintance Ana - both Matschenz and Mijovic are excellent in this entry - after the male lead cares for the latter following her public sexual humiliation at the hands of her thug-motorcyclist boyfriend. (Johannes, who clandestinely witnesses the scene while lying nude in the nearby grass at the edge of the woods, rescues the abandoned and shirtless young woman as she huddles behind a nearby tree.) Throughout Petzold's installment, clandestine glances, sweeping searches, and voyeuristic gazes generate a creeping sense of suspense and unease. The dense forest that lies at the center of the trilogy's fictional geography is also its dark heart; the epicenter of a developing manhunt for the escaped Molesch, it is also a site of nameless, almost supernatural dread that darkens the edges of the young couple's developing relationship. Emerging from the woods in a bedraggled red dress after a lover's quarrel, Ana brings to mind a present-day Little Red Riding Hood. 

Ever expert at the art of manipulation,  Petzold cuts violently against the spectator's established sense of the characters late in the narrative, reversing fields as he reveals both Johannes' far less admirable side and also Ana's commensurate instability. In so doing, Petzold reinforces the psychological importance of the literal, black-and-white surveillance footage that Johannes views in the picture's opening scene - Beats Being Dead ultimately introduces an economy of such points-of-view within a variety of contexts, including the three noted above - while even more significantly revealing the presumed working-class, native German Johannes' particular relationship both to his economic betters and also to Ana's  immigrant underclass. From the cultural differences that constantly drive a wedge of misunderstanding between Ana and Johannes, to the lack of private transportation that forces Ana to take a dangerous road to work everyday (more than wolves or even madmen) it is the longing for social mobility that ultimately threatens the young couple's future. In Beats Being Dead, as in Jerichow, Petzold's re-imagines Germany's multi-cultural social and demographic presents in decisively personal terms.

While politics likewise play a role in Dreileben's equally striking second part, Don't Follow Me Around, Dominik Graf and co-writer Markus Busch depart from the class-based rhetoric of Petzold, in exchange for an institutional criticism that finds targets in both the systematic crimes of the GDR and also those of the film's neighboring small-town police force. Ostensibly employed to help track the escaped Molesch, police psychologist Johanna (Jeanette Hain; pictured, left), who it should be added makes an initially opaque cameo in Beats Being Dead, in fact is brought to Dreileben foremost to suss out the aforementioned departmental abuses, with her pursuit of the convicted killer occurring only after the former situation is resolved. While in this sense Don't Follow Me Around attends more closely to the principle narrative focus of the 'Berlin school' triptych, Graf's principle subject (like Petzold's) lies foremost in a love triangle, which in the second feature develops between old friends Johanna and her local host Vera (Susanne Wolff; pictured, right) after they learn of a point-of-convergence in their respective romantic pasts. In this sense, Don't Follow Me Around extends its larger focus on historical incident, on the past, to a matter of more personal interest (thus replicating Beats Being Dead's comparable grafting of social and ethnic politics onto the interactions of its own triangular narrative structure; and as in the earlier film the results tilt in favor of the same Nordic archetypes). Fittingly, given  the sprawling novelistic feel of the entire Dreilieben series, the central mystery of Graf's episode is linked not to murder or police misconduct, but to paternity. Perhaps a reflexive comment on the authorship of this unique collective work, questions of parentage run through all three strands of the trilogy - like Johanna's young daughter, Johannes, Ana, and Molesh have missing parents.

For its fundamental narrative similarities to Beats Being Dead, not to mention its overlapping incidents that the second film on occasion helps to clarify retrospectively, Don't Follow Me Around nonetheless breaks substantially from Petzold's film on the level of the image, both in terms of Graf and cinematographer Michael Wiesweg's shooting strategies and also of the content of what appears before the camera. Graf's film relies both on a less crisp, grainier 16mm stock and also on hand-held camera work in its articulation of domestic melodrama in the tradition of Ingmar Bergman and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Pro-filmically, Don't Follow Me Around matches Beats Being Dead's overriding emphasis on surveillance with its own even more pronounced constellation of concrete settings. Indeed, from Johanna's original departure for the village to her collaboration with the local police department that takes the single-mother on a series of dining excursion throughout the community, Graf stacks location upon location, in essence (and in one instance literally) mapping the film's Dreileben setting. Even more distinctive than these exteriors, however, is Vera and hack-author husband Bruno's (Misel Maticevic) village home - once purportedly the site of a communist brothel. The villa provides an apt setting for the second parallel love triangle that the grows out of the trio's amusing wine-fueled meditations on love and memory, with the homestead's exterior shower permitting at least one passage of comic titillation, while the series of locked doors inside invite a psychoanalytic interpretation to match the film's psycho-sexual content.

While Don't Follow Me Around succeeds in further enriching the experience of part one, thanks both to its substantive convergences and divergences from Petzold's film, Christoph Hochhäusler's One Minute of Darkness ultimately fails to achieve the same. One Minute of Darkness, co-written by Peer Klehmet, indeed suffers not only from its comparably insufficient development of its middle-aged police detective co-lead Marcus (Eberhard Kirchberg), who spends the narrative pursuing the fugitive Molesch as well as the truth of the brutal murder that led to his incarceration, but also from the arguably unsatisfying nature of the reversals that Hochhäusler's film employs in resolving both the latter film's own structuring mystery, and also that of Beats Being Dead. The initially compelling relationship between the laconic Marcus and the adult gym-owner son, who seems starved for his affection and regard, is briefly sketched and quickly abandoned. Likewise, the flesh and blood Molesch, emerging from the obscure darkness of the woods into the center of the narrative both figuratively and visually, additionally fails to live up to the leering phantom of the first two episodes.  

Ultimately, the comparative weakness of Hochhäusler's effort belongs as much to its position at the end of the series, as a work that according to logic of the project demands some form of resolution or at least a consistent logic - One Minute of Darkness does not refashion the love triangle; it does not inaugurate an original DV idiom wholly distinct from the first two parts - as it does to any internal falterings per se. Perhaps Hochhäusler should not be held accountable for failing to produce a summarizing work on the level of Three Colors: Red (1994), given the discrete nature of the Dreileben productions. Nevertheless, One Minute of Darkness reveals a structural deficiency in the project that insures that at best, Dreileben remains two-thirds great cinema.

This review was co-written by Michael J. Anderson and Lisa K. Broad. Dreileben will screen at the New York Film Festival in its entirety on Saturday, October 1, beginning at 1:00 PM , and over three successive days, starting Tuesday, October 4, at 3:30 PM.

1 comment:

Jeppe said...

Hi M.A.

I only recently got the chance to see all of the Dreileben films and I found One Minute of Darkness to be quite impressive among the three - if not the best. The use of natural light and Molesch wandering around in the forest of Thuringen invokes a strange, poetic cinematography with a touching and tactile sound design. Watch it again if you get the chance.