The Bitter Tears of Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Fox and His Friends (1975). Photo credit: TIFF.
Fox and His Friends (1975). Photo credit: TIFF.

Between now and Christmastime, the TIFF Bell Lightbox is hosting a retrospective called Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. One of the generation of German directors that produced Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, Fassbinder grew up in the aftermath of WWII, absorbing the instability of the time and place. Accordingly, his films are filled with paranoia, despair and corruption.

Fassbinder’s is a Germany pressed in on all sides, a Germany of cluttered offices, cramped apartments, narrow alleyways and windowless dive bars. The stories themselves unfurl through the constricted channels available to their characters, hedged in by the shame, distrust and greed that pervade the national character. The fashion designer heroine of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant sits trapped in her luxurious bedroom, isolated for her emotional instability and her illicit love for a beautiful aspiring model. In The Merchant of Four Seasons, a returning soldier finds himself worn down to nothing by the simple strain of daily life. Time and again, Fassbinder sees his heroes punished for their naiveté in trying to free themselves from life’s fascistic grind. These are 20th Century Grimms’ tales.

The past is inescapable in Fassbinder’s work, and the future isn’t too bright either. His BRD Trilogy drives this grim thesis home, following three women’s struggles for life and dignity in West Germany after the war. In The Marriage of Maria Braun, a young beauty makes a fortune in business, but finds herself moving further and further from her life’s dream. Veronica Voss, the second of the three films, tells the story of an over-the-hill starlet trying to stage a comeback while a treacherous doctor drains her of life and money, framed in the style of a Hollywood noir. In Lola, the trilogy’s final film, a much sought-after prostitute seduces an idealistic bureaucrat, bringing about the collapse of his crusade against corruption.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). Photo credit: TIFF.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). Photo credit: TIFF.

“This is where Hitler used to eat,” old Frau Kurowski cheerfully tells her young Moroccan husband as they go into a restaurant on their wedding day in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. The film, rightly one of Fassbinder’s best loved, looks at the racial and social tensions that hung over German life as the generation that accepted Nazism carried on into old age. The old widow, a former party member, falls for a lonely migrant worker and finds herself abandoned by family and neighbours alike because of the unusual relationship that develops.

Fassbinder’s first features, beginning in 1969, were muted, cheerless, bluntly political avant-garde films. By the mid ’70s, he was a mature cinematic dramatist, much of his most interesting work already under his belt, including Ali, Petra von Kant, and the visionary sci-fi World on a Wire, in which a company devises a supercomputer containing a full simulated world. In 1975, a youthful Fassbinder starred in his own Fox and His Friends, playing an innocent gay carnival worker who wins the lottery and is set upon by the vampiric bourgeoisie. Himself openly bisexual, Fassbinder called it “the first film in which the characters are homosexuals, without homosexuality being made into a problem.”

Video interviews from a few years later show Fassbinder bloated and worn, suddenly middle-aged, a far cry from the lithe and boyish rapscallion Fox. Then, one night in 1982, the director’s girlfriend walked into his bedroom to find him slumped over his notes for a new film. Dead at 37 from cocaine and barbiturates, the notoriously workaholic filmmaker had produced forty feature films all in all, as well as a substantial body of work in radio, theatre, television and as an actor. Thus ended the prodigiously productive career of a storyteller whose central interest was in modern life’s toxicity to the soul.

As the name of the retrospective makes clear, Fassbinder wasn’t interested in realism for realism’s sake. Rather than recreating, he represented. He favoured allegory, as in The Marriage of Maria Braun, whose leading lady’s emergence from the rubble of the war mirrors the recovery of the Adenauer years in West Germany, as well as the tragic emptiness that Fassbinder saw at that period’s core. Throughout his filmography, characters operate first and foremost as representatives of social phenomena and political ideas, whether in the disenchanted youths of his early film Katzelmacher or the hapless, working class ex-soldier of The Merchant of Four Seasons. Ever the revolutionary, Fassbinder uses his characters to lambast society’s faults and to warn his viewers of the harsh consequences of moral weakness.

Hark Bohm in Lola (1981). Photo credit: Acting-Out Politics.com.

Fassbinder liked to use the same actors over and over, often asking friends and lovers to work with him because that was the only chance he got to spend time with them. One can tell he was a connoisseur of great faces, a fact attested to by the constant reappearance of Hark Bohm‘s magnificently humourless bespectacled mug, the harsh beauty of Fassbinder’s long time girlfriend Irm Herrman, and the majestic and imposing El Hedi ben Salem, star of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and another of his flames.

“Politics and culture, German and international cinema have all changed so drastically in the decades since Fassbinder’s death,” writes retrospective curator James Quandt, “that one wonders if he would be welcome in this world at all, much less be able to continue making his kind of films.” Maybe not. But whether we’re talking about his meditation on the immigrant experience in Ali, or the prophetic computer dream of World on a Wire, or the brash and complex feminism one finds throughout his oeuvre, it’s clear enough that the films he left behind have lost none of their relevance or potency since his tragic death.

Fassbinder: Imitations of Life is screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox from this Friday, October 28th, until December 23rd. For more information on the retrospective, and to read James Quandt’s essay on the director, visit the website here.

Film Review: The Lovers and the Despot

Kim Jong-il (centre) with Shin Sang-ok (right) and Choi Eun-hee (left). Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Kim Jong-il (centre) with Shin Sang-ok (right) and Choi Eun-hee (left). Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

This week, The Lovers and the Despot comes to Toronto, a documentary of the stranger-than-fiction category about tyranny, art, and the magic of cinema at its darkest and most bizarre.

In 1978, a South Korean leading lady named Choi Eun-hee went to a meeting in Hong Kong to discuss a film project. But there was no project — at least, not the sort she had in mind. Promptly, Choi was snatched by goons, chloroformed and taken by boat to North Korea. There, she would be held prisoner for the better part of a decade by Kim Jong-il, the squat dictator of the North. Weeks later, Choi’s ex-husband, the director Shin Sang-ok, disappeared under similar circumstances, and he too became Kim’s prisoner. “Bring them to me,” the tubby tyrant had demanded.

Why? Because Kim was something of an artiste himself. An inveterate film buff and aspiring producer, the Dear Leader wanted to collaborate with the forcibly reunited Seoullywood power couple. The plan was to combine their expertise with his immaculate genius for all things, making films that would celebrate the glory of the most oppressive state in modern history.

For three years, Shin and Choi were hugely prolific under Kim’s supervision, releasing film after film before their escape in 1986. It is an incredible story. one so strange the world might have trouble believing it had Shin not surreptitiously taped his conversations with Kim.

With such an extraordinary and surreal tale to tell, the filmmakers can do no real ill. Interviews with experts, former spies, family members and Choi herself, now 89, are intercut with archival footage, Shin’s films and his secret audio tapes, making for a fast paced, perfectly conventional telling of a naturally thrilling story.

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

While Choi is the one interviewed for the film, Shin having died in 2006, her involvement in the narrative seems secondary. More or less, the story of The Lovers and the Despot is about two men: Shin and Kim, slave and master, artist and patron, director and executive producer. This is where the real perversity of the thing lies, in their bond of mutual manipulation and mutual dependency.

Before his capture, Shin was washed up, despairing for his career after the South Korean government officially blocked him from working in film. Now, Kim Jong-il heaped huge budgets onto every project, giving him and Choi anything they asked for to help them spread the good news of Kim-style totalitarianism. In return, the couple brought to the work a level of sophistication and humanity that had never been seen before in the films of the communist prison-state. In a strange way, Kim was a dream executive producer. So when the possibility of escape first presented itself, Shin was ambivalent: “There’s no way I can betray him,” muttered the director into his recorder.

Probably the most captivating part of the film is its portrait of Kim Jong-il, the revolutionary’s chubby son, awkwardly trying to establish himself as a despot in his own right. This is a man who runs an Orwellian dystopia with an iron grip, and then complains that North Koreans are too narrow-minded to make decent movies.

The Lovers and the Despot is an illuminating and exciting movie about movies: their wonder, their insanity, their ability to drive the real world into the strangest places imaginable. It opens September 30th at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema. For details and showtimes, go to the movie’s website here.

Film Review: A Quiet Passion

Photo credit: IMDB.
Photo credit: IMDB.

In A Quiet Passion, Cynthia Nixon stars as Emily Dickinson. The actor, it must be mentioned, is best known for her role as Miranda on Sex and the City, although she’s invited to push her acting chops a little further here as the physically and mentally troubled poet.

Nixon succeeds absolutely in the lead, playing the idiosyncratic punctuatrix with subtlety and skill that brings the passion of the film’s title inescapably to the screen. In fact, one often wishes that the former TV star had been given a better movie in which to play the part.

A Quiet Passion is not bad through and through. It has virtues beyond Nixon’s performance, such as Jennifer Ehle‘s steady if uninteresting turn as Emily’s sister Vinnie, or the decorous austerity of the period art design. The film’s portrait of Dickinson, paired with that of the world she inhabits, establishes gracefully enough the tragic suppression of the gifted woman in upper crust 19th century America.

But a number of serious problems keep the film from being what it might have. Story wise, it gets stuck between an earnest meditation on Emily’s psychology and an unimaginative, uneventful costume drama. While the second, more hapless half is the better one, the story begins with a totally gratuitous act depicting Dickinson’s youth, and proceeds through a hackneyed first hour devoted entirely to the exposition of Emily’s unconventionality, Emily’s wit, and the fact that Puritans are stuffy.

Nixon plays Dickinson from some time in her twenties (a stretch) to her death at fifty five. But as these three decades pass through the stodgy biopic, their passing goes almost unnoticed, mainly on account of how little has happened and how superficial the drama has remained. A change in makeup might have helped, but then again so would a plot.

All in all, it isn’t quite clear what A Quiet Passion is about. While Dickinson’s poetry is repeatedly referred to, and several scenes include the verse in murmured narration by Nixon, this isn’t really the kind of biopic that concerns itself with the act of art-making, like Amadeus or the Paul Dano bits in 2014’s Love and Mercy. Rather than crazed toiling, Emily’s writing seems the only really easy and natural thing in her life, done by night with the permission of her mildly misunderstanding father.

So what is Emily Dickinson’s struggle? Is it with her social difficulties? With so much of the film devoted to her curious and whimsical conversations with family and close friends, that seems unlikely. Her failing health? No, despite one or two shaking fits that bring the mood down, but don’t really constitute a central storyline. Her isolation? Isolated she is, but by choice, and not to much dramatic effect. Dickinson’s life is clearly an unhappy one, but it’s never apparent what writer and director Terrence Davies, known for The House of Mirth and The Deep Blue Sea, has to say about it.

Part of the problem is tone. While the main concern seems to be with the corrosive unhappiness of the shut-in genius, life in the Dickinson manner of the film is anything but stark, presenting instead an almost sitcom-like revolving door of colourful guests, portrayed flatly and without purpose. Particularly difficult to stomach is Emily’s brash and independent friend Vryling Buffam, who comes onscreen to exchange contrived Wildean witticisms with Emily as if in a poorly directed college production of Lady Windermere’s Fan.

Despite these distractions, the film is, at its core, a meditation on the depths of human misery. As such, it does achieve moments of transcendence: a fantasy sequence here, a slow tracking shot there, a handful of exchanges between Emily and her relatives in which you find yourself leaving the general blandness behind and instead becoming suddenly and authentically depressed.

A Quiet Passion is screening on September 12th as part of TIFF’s Masters section, and is expected to come to theatres across Canada in early 2017.

Five Films to See This Fall

Alas, summer is drawing to an end. The nights are getting longer, the leaves are starting to rouge, and the big movie releases are about to take on that distinctive autumn flavour. Accordingly, we’ve looked through the titles set to hit theatres in the months ahead and picked out our top five films to look out for this fall.

The Magnificent Seven (23 September)

Photo credit: Sony Pictures.
Photo credit: Sony Pictures.

For a while now, Hollywood has been working on this big Western comeback, from 2013’s commercial disaster The Lone Ranger to Tarantino’s last two films, to the charming and original 2015 release Slow West and a couple of mediocre or worse spoofs, 2014’s A Million Ways to Die in the West and The Ridiculous 6 a year later. Thus far, it has been a mixed bag. Where will this film, a remake of John Sturges 1960 remake of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, rank among them? The prognosis is: not badly. By the looks of it, director Antoine Fuqua has put together a pretty top notch ensemble cast, including Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Vincent D’Onofrio, aka Private Pile, and put them to good use. The Magnificent Seven is sure to fall into the flashy, unpretentious, stunt-heavy sub bracket of the New Western rather than the contemplative, Oscar-grabby sort. Just as well. See the trailer here.

 American Honey (7 October)

Photo credit: Protagonist Pictures.
Photo credit: Protagonist Pictures.

There can be no questioning that, in the past few years, Shia LaBeouf has been hard at work, building up his don’t-give-a-fuck, anti-establishment credentials through attention-grasping feats of public strangeness. Now, it seems, the time has come to put those credentials to the test, in his first leading role since he left the Transformers franchise behind. Here, he plays a rowdy, rat-tailed young itinerant, crazy in love as he journeys across America in search of happiness and money. Those who found themselves entirely put off by the recent antics of the former Even Stevens kid will be unlikely to return to his side on account of this film alone. But, whether it’s because of or despite the public personality of its star, American Honey looks like it might just have enough genuine verve and vitality to make it worth checking out. With what looks like a Harmony-Korine-esque grimy freneticism and a driving sense of poetic lostness, it seems that this movie, with some luck, could actually be pretty good. See the trailer here.

Arrival (11 November)

Photo credit: IMDB.
Photo credit: IMDB.

When aliens finally come to Earth, we all have a pretty good idea how it’ll go. They’ll float down out of the sky, tentacles fixed on ray guns, and quickly make known their desire to bring the human race to its knees. Perhaps they’ll blow up the White House, leave town, and then return twenty years later for a sequel no one cares about. Few of us, however, would think to call for the world’s greatest interpreter to help us open up a dialogue with our visitors from across the galaxy. In Arrival, Amy Adams attempts to do just that, jumping into her human-alien dictionary, rather than her fighter jet, to save the planet. The result looks something like District Nine meets Interstellar, hopefully without the  latter’s Contact-style sentimental anti-twist. See the trailer here.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (18 November)

Photo credit: IMDB.
Photo credit: IMDB.

For better or worse, it never seemed possible that the world of Harry Potter would stay off the silver screen for long. This time, J.K. Rowling herself takes up the role of screenwriter, drawing her universe back to the New York of the roaring ’20s to introduce Newt Scamander, magizoologist extraordinaire. Easter eggs and fan shout-outs will most assuredly abound as Rowling et al. grapple to satisfy the ravenous legions of guaranteed ticket-buyers while leaving their favourite wizard decades in the future. The film makes the same gambit as 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and last year’s Star Wars: Episode VII, hazarding a re-entry into an already tied-off cinematic dimension. Will it live up to the boundless hype that will forever await any addition to the Potter-verse? Whether it does so or fails miserably, Magical Beasts will be a cinematic event impossible to ignore. See the trailer here.

Silence (December)

Photo credit: IMDB.
Photo credit: IMDB.

So far, we haven’t seen so much as a trailer for Martin Scorsese‘s latest, a film about Jesuit priests in 17th century Japan, starring Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver. To be honest, it isn’t even clear that this one will be coming out this fall. But, on the chance that it will, which IMDB currently claims is the case, no list of films worth waiting hungrily for through the cooling months would be complete without it. Scorsese has been trying to make Silence since the early ’90s, and he has only now, after two and a half decades of delays, diversions, recasting, location scouting, and convincing an A-list cast and crew to work for scale, succeeded. Needless to say, like any Scorsese passion project, it is not to be missed.

Film Review: Hieronymus Bosch, Touched by the Devil

 

From the middle panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights. Image credit: Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

In 1516, Dutch master painter Hieronymus Bosch died. 500 years later, the Noordbrabant Museum hosted an exhibition of his work, drawing the lion’s share from all across Europe and America back to Hieronymus’s home town of Den Bosch. The event took years of preparation by an eclectic team, from art historians to computer scientists, to a pair of wood experts brought in to help date the paintings. While these men and women furrowed their brows into the masterpieces, a documentary crew was there to capture the action in what became Hieronymus Bosch, Touched by the Devil, opening today at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

Bosch is legendary for his busy and surreal triptych paintings, bursting with imagery that is fantastic, sinister and sometimes inexplicable. The most famous is The Garden of Earthly Delights, a trippy Where’s Waldo of medieval theology in which nude figures salaciously grope oversized berries and gallivant on birds, boar and unicorns, riding past great structures that look like candy-coloured cartoon moon bases.

These paintings are, in a word, lively. The same cannot be said so easily for this unapologetic slow-burner of a documentary, which throws the wackiness of the art into stark relief against the mundane atmosphere behind the scenes. We watch the experts measure wood grains and compare right leg to left, hunched for gruelling hours of analysis.

From the side panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights. Image credit: Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

Mercifully, director Pieter van Huystee zeros in on art historian and exhibition ringleader Matthis Ilsink, whose quiet charisma and sex appeal make him something of a rarity in the room of senescent Bosch specialists. With a twinkle in his eye and a heartfelt meditation at the ready, Ilsink guides us through the channels of international gallery politics, a world of cluttered offices, fluorescent-lit boardrooms, and stuffy government buildings.

Moments of drama do spark up, or seem to, as the team confronts clashes of theory and ego with gallery pooh-bahs and raise apparently scandalous questions over Bosch’s artistic identity. But the plotline of the exhibition’s painstaking assembly becomes little more than a sideshow, and every brass-tacks gallery conversation has us waiting to return to the art at the centre of it.

In this story, all the real drama takes place on the paintings’ wood surfaces, and the most captivating moments are when the experts turn back to Bosch’s works to consider the personalities of the prancing demons, the expressions of the sinners, the biblical stories at play, the echoes of the artist’s boyhood in Den Bosch.

Who was Hieronymus Bosch? This is the enigma floating in the background of everything. Was he a scholar? A madman? Or just a draftsman with a quirky imagination and a firm sense of sin and its consequences? The documentary sets out, not so much to answer these questions as to illustrate the depth of their ambiguity.

All told, this isn’t really a film about Bosch, but rather about the life that his paintings carry on centuries after his death. It isn’t a film about the splendour of genius, and it isn’t, despite some pretense, an inspiring against-all-odds tale of curatorial triumph. Instead, van Huystee gives us hardcore, nitty-gritty curating, not for the faint of heart. He deliberately leaves us wondering, along with our protagonist Dr. Ilsink, what was going on in the mind of Bosch, a mind obsessed with a world beyond this one.

“It’s always hell, with a little bit of heaven,” Ilsink muses of Bosch’s work as the camera follows a painted figure ascending into a halo of light. And while this documentary keeps its feet firmly on earth, its very workaday feel conveys the profoundness of this medieval illustrator’s vision.

For full film listings and show times, visit the website here.