A Baltic-to-Balkan road trip
No passports or visas were needed to check in at the 9th Annual European Union Film Festival, nor did one have to be an actual European to partake in this, North America’s largest showcase for the federation’s films. Nor were complaints heard about reading subtitles: as a great melting pot metropolis where sidewalk conversations sound in the distinctive cadences of Croatian and Hindi and Cantonese and Arabic, Chicago is itself a city of subtitles.
A sure harbinger of spring for Windy City residents, at least those undeterred by in-like-a-lion March weather, the festival represents the pick of Gene Siskel Film Center’s enterprising programmers, who ranged freely across the continent to assemble a head-spinning choice of 53 Chicago premieres spread across one month, unreeling at a prodigious clip of nearly two a day, featuring both new directors and mature masters. As an alternative to America’s sound-bite culture — presenting movies minus tidal waves of hype, screened outside multiplex regimentation, and without force-marches to the popcorn counter — the festival proved better than a trip to Europe (and cheaper too, given the muscular Euro) as well as a Baltic-to-Balkan vacation from formulaic fare.
As raw material for a dialogue with Europe, the new world’s cultural cradle, the festival films reached out to Fortress America, and indeed monocultural Yanks could stand some practice being guests in someone else’s reality, even if half the films here featured entire pages of English dialogue, apparently the EU’s new lingua franca. There was a time, of course, when Hollywood thought nothing of passing off red-white-and-blue American types like James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as Hungarian shop clerks in The Shop Around the Corner, or Marlon Brando as a Mexican in Viva Zapata! (right, with Jean Peters), or Shelley Winters as a Dutch hausfrau in Diary of Anne Frank. No one except Parisians blinked when the French cast of Gigi spoke and sang in the King’s English. But that was then, this is a more realistic now, at least linguistically.
The Euro-funded film industry may produce its share of laddish slacker comedies and retro genre variations, but even mainstream projects like France’s Lemming or Slovakia’s The City of the Sun take unapologetically intelligent stances about grown-up issues. Almost every title in this festival’s lineup celebrates a secular reality not scrubbed away by pious pitbulls, open to tackling new social imperatives like immigration, religious diversity, and postindustrial labor options. Next to these, American cinema’s escapist depictions of society stand out with all the authenticity of a plastic lawn flamingo stuck in a bed of tulips. If Hollywood locks the audience in a position of pure consumption — and not just of popcorn — Europe seems to offer an alternative, a human-centered cinema that credits us as collaborators, experimenting with forms that will illuminate content while always leaving room for the audience to think.
As it pulls down the barbed-wire barricades to let people and ideas and information flow freely across frontiers, the EU challenges notions of identity politics by presenting working models of how to transcend and rebalance ethnic, racial, and religious differences. When one festival offering (Bitter Coffee) concerns a Croatian man and Egyptian woman in the Czech Republic directed by an Icelandic cineaste, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that the EU has become a cultural force relaxing certain individual tensions. In this postindustrial Europe, new questions are taking shape around this transnational cinema without borders. Has the federation formed a recognizable hybrid consciousness? Is there such a thing as a European aesthetic? Has EU membership helped the Arts?
It may be an accident of selection and availability, but this year’s festival choices sustained an impressively high level. Chicago’s audiences voted for Olivier Assayas’s harrowing Clean as their favorite, but word-of-mouth ran strongly positive for Fatih Akin’s tribute to Turkish music called Crossing the Bridge, as well as Portugal’s The Hero (O Herói), Finland’s Mother of Mine (Äidestä Parhain), Germany’s Go for Zucker! (Alles auf Zucker! ) and Great Britain’s Ae Fond Kiss. Of the fifteen additional films reviewed below, not one takes place more than year or so in the past, which suggests an optimistic forward momentum.
Life on the farm was never the pastoral delight sung by poets, and director Attila Janisch’s third feature, the intense and handsomely mounted After the Day Before (Másnap), continues this critique, portraying the resplendent midsummer Hungarian countryside where every prospect pleases — the epic mountain vistas, silvery babbling brooks, and wild fields of giant sunflowers — and only man is vile, judging from the parade of drunken and menacing peasants who cross the protagonist’s path. A cautiously passive urban intellectual, he sets out to claim an inheritance among the hostile malcontents who live a harsher existence than their calendar art environment suggests (“You have it easy. You just come and go. We have to stay”). Less a flesh-and-blood person than a stick figure, this city mouse is ripe for malign lessons from one country mouse or another, accompanied by heavy doses of ambient sound, folkloric melodies, foreboding electronics, and unearthly Arvo Pärt chorales. Striking overhead tracking shots, ultra-intrusive close-ups, and Steadicam circling all suggest a Magyar edition of Van Sant’sGerry as the film gradually turns into a perceptual dreamscape. As the old-hat resolution become clear in the final stretch, though, the film’s increasingly fussy structure starts to leak interest. With the burden of guilt hefted here, these characters are lucky they’re not in a Michael Haneke film.
The street corner assassination of cultural provocateur Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam on 2 November 2004 provoked a shockwave that swept through the Netherlands, exposing the underlying tensions between Dutch society and its growing underclass communities of foreign workers from Muslim cultures (and served as an unwelcome preview of the Danish cartoon riots a year later). As a filmic response to these events, the surprisingly polished All Souls collects sixteen short reflections by local filmmakers under the rubric “Stories on the Edge of Murder.” Concerned less with the determinedly offensive descendant of Vincent Van Gogh than the cultural impact of his death, this portmanteau effort nevertheless opens on a note of mordant satire, where an actor portrays the slain filmmaker, a scimitar planted firmly in his chest, as his attempts to receive medical attention get frustrated by red-tape generating bureaucrats.
Many segments faithfully maintain Van Gogh’s transgressive tone, as in a skit where three bearded muftis meet in a tribunal to accuse a lesbian couple — “Why do you refuse to allow a man to enter your body?” — and then throw the convicted women head first from the highest building, a punishment actively preached in a Netherlands mosque. Another piece roasts linguistic pretensions, as a snooty restaurant waiter recites increasingly ridiculous items from an absurdist menu, such as jamboree of prunes, garlic crackling, and tofu deck chair, while other filmmakers highlight social absurdities: reacting to the murder, a Turkish immigrant apologizes to a Dutch citizen “in the name of all Muslims,” while his Moroccan neighbor comments, “Why? You didn’t do anything!” A poker-faced but compelling monologue has a Dutch mother rattling on to an immigrant taxi driver, comparing Van Gogh’s reported last words (“Mercy!”) with her own son’s as he fell out of a tree (“Goddam!”).
Other contributors run the events through a sci-fi lens, depicting the arrival of a mysterious dust cloud that settles over Amsterdam, reported in jump-cut channel surfing bites, while another tries an allegorical slasher movie told in precise Hitchcock-like compositions. Poetic metaphors abound in a dream montage where exquisitely lit shots of a woman’s body overlap with knives, ships, flames, and snow. If nothing else, this assemblage opens a useful debate on how much diversity a country can tolerate, and also makes clear why Van Gogh was highly regarded for his contentious questioning of authority, while making no bones about his fervent support for right-wing politics and the Iraq war. No doubt he would approve the ironic skit where police are about to arrest a boy for shoplifting when they are suddenly called away to the Van Gogh murder scene, proving that every misfortune will sooner or later work to somebody’s advantage.
In the Czech Republic’s droll Bitter Coffee (Silny Kafe), the titular brew does little for one protagonist’s energy level when his girlfriend, exasperated by his slacker ways, dumps a potful of breakfast blend over his head, followed with generous splashes of milk and sugar. That’s only one outburst of the knotty romantic tensions that grip a quintet of up-and-coming theatre and moviemaking types in Prague, their lives an amiable blur of trying to reconcile ambition and pleasure-seeking with the quest to nest and commit (not necessarily following predictable gender lines). The males, laconic to a fault and accustomed to pampering and indulgence, pack their asthma inhalers as they reluctantly follow their girlfriends for a weekend country getaway, in their eyes an unwanted chance to commune with hillbillies and go canoeing among the mosquitoes. In his directing debut, Icelandic-born Börkur Gunnarsson clearly favors spontaneity and good humor, opening the film with a determinedly quirky a capella jazz improvisation, a comedic tone sustained as characters clamber in and out windows, and one fellow proceeds to read a book, tearing out each page as he finishes it. The grainy lo-fi video occasionally achieves an auburn warmth, while Gunnarsson successfully wrests serious dramatic strains from the interactions of his laid-back cast (he seems to conclude that, for sustaining relationships, sex makes the best cement).
Jörg Kalt’s consistently funny Crash Test Dummies sends a pair of youthful Rumanian layabouts to knock around Vienna for a weekend, where they meet several Austrian counterparts, and all continually find and lose each other with alacrity, adjusting (or not) to the needs of the partner at hand, as if enacting some postmodern variation onLa Ronde. Fate applies its hammer one way or another, but their youth protects them with rubber resilience. Blundering around the Austrian capital, Bucharest headbanger Nicolae gets his nose broken, then his finger, until he’s finally reduced to tootling a toy flute on the street corner to eke out train fare home, while his girlfriend Anna enjoys an unexpected trip to the emergency room while fretting about her child left back in Rumania. Meanwhile, gently non-judgmental Jan, ill-fitted to his new job as a department store detective, studies surveillance TV footage all day but can’t bring himself to arrest shoplifters, while trust-fund hippie Martha plots ways to deflate the bourgeois bubble of her disapproving parents. Without notable visual innovation, director Kalt still keeps the narrative ball aloft by nudging playful behavioral surprises out of these characters, even when we expect the faintly familiar plot about transporting hot cars for cold cash to unwind or falter. Despite their deplorable behavior and even their inanities, this easygoing comedy models a tolerant acceptance of its casual rule-breakers, druggies, and fringe youth. For those seeking a metaphor for young people haplessly subjected to giant forces beyond their control, yet able to absorb the shock and soldier on, it’s all there in the title.
A lacerating underclass noir and a real find, Down Colorful Hill (W dól kolorowym wzgórzem) stirs up a storm of raw emotion and confrontation worthy to compare with Pialat and the Dardennes. Propelled by blazingly acted set-pieces and springing surprises down to the last minute, the story opens on a young ex-con released from two years in prison, returning to claim his inheritance of a derelict farmhouse and abandoned plot of land, only to find it in the hands of his brother. Worse still, the girlfriend waiting for him is now his brother’s bride, while his old criminal confreres are waiting to welcome him with open arms. Set to pungent dialogue that twitches with injustice, the film snapshots the borderline poor in the very process of becoming poorer, all in a ravaged countryscape as brutalized by its laissez-faire capitalist present as its authoritarian communist past.
With a sensibility that’s intensely cinematic rather than literary, director Przemyslaw Wojcieszek moves his third feature film forward in spasms of tension, with unforgettable face-to-face family showdowns shot in a raw handheld video hues of bruise-colored brown and blue and green (yet also boldly experimenting with red light). The camera follows how the actors’ bodies move and confront and challenge each other, not least the charismatically handsome Dariusz Majchrzak as the parolee and the glinting-eyed Przemyslaw Bluszcz hazardously waving his gun around as a volatile powder-keg thug. Despite its cryptic title, this is a completely realized vision of gritty and grainy immediacy, and one with an unexpectedly epic undertow.
Fallen (Krisana) appears under the aegis of Latvia, but comes from Berlin-born director Fred Kelemen, a past cameraman for Béla Tarr, who displays the Hungarian master’s dexterity in this tale of a man’s encounter with a suicidal woman on a bridge, told completely through artful but sometimes punishing long takes. During an evening’s peregrinations through Riga, the protagonist finds a camera in the dead woman’s purse, has the photos inside developed, and undertakes a forensic pursuit of her backstory as deduced from the snapshot evidence. When he tests his ideas against the testimony of people involved in her life, the catharsis he seeks gives way instead to a brooding object lesson in the dangers of interpreting reality, and then crushing irony as his unproven assumptions cause a second needless death. Covering miles of solitary city streets in his restless search, the power-walking loner embodies the very process of looking for answers, sometimes followed in velvety floating Steadicam shots, elsewhere preceded in jittery shakycam. Kelemen uses his few actors intelligently and stages the action with care and complexity, whether pulling his camera back for one revelation, sending it in circles for another, or switching to a wide-angle lens for yet another. Less ambitious than his four earlier films, which enjoyed no less an advocate than the late Susan Sontag, Fallen remains in thrall to depicting the moment but may be rewarding precisely because it’s half their length.
“Welcome to Paradise,” says Charlotte Rampling’s displaced Bostonian as she greets the latest arrival at a Haiti beachfront hotel, opening France’s tropically colorful Heading South (Vers le Sud). American women as sex tourists in the Third World may not be uncharted waters, but Rampling effectively steps into Lana Turner’s Mexican beach clogs left over fromLove Has Many Faces, or Angela Bassett’s more recent Jamaican sandals from How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Here lazy mornings of sunbathing while sipping Tequila Sunrises and smoking Caribbean weed give way to afternoon assignations in shady palm groves, where bodies black and white slide together in erotic play. The novelty here is that Laurent Cantet, the avowedly political director best known for Time Out, builds an interesting context for this reciprocity, illustrating that this island paradise lives under the dictatorship of corrupt police and private gangsters, venturing into public spaces outside the range of white tourists where locals need to swallow their dignity to save their skins.
Each of three women tourists gets her chance to address the camera and lay out her viewpoint: Rampling’s rigorously pragmatic Ellen, a vacationing Wellesley professor, explains that “I always said when I’m old, I’d pay young men to love me. I just didn’t think it would come so soon.” Karen Young’s Brenda has returned to look up the sexually confident beach lothario called Legba (the handsome and charismatic Ménothy César) who provoked her long-awaited first orgasm, while Louise Portal’s French-Canadian Sue refuses to feel self-conscious about her full figure (“We all change when we get here. Here I feel free and alive”).
Surprisingly, the hotel’s Haitian maitre d’, who refuses to serve the male sex workers, also gets his time to address the camera: he comes from a family of political activists who regard the white race as invaders and occupiers (“American dollars are more dangerous than their cannons. Everything they touch turns to garbage”). A Haitian woman, Legba’s onetime neighbor, now a gangster’s mistress, also gets time to review her economic restraints (“When these people want something, they always get it”).
Jealousy inevitably develops, though the astutely independent Legba rejects all long-term commitments from the women as so much wishful thinking. When Ellen pretends to believe that “Legba belongs to everyone,” the irony is that it’s actually true. Although some disappointingly shallow plot turns undermine the third act, this affair plays better than its tepid reception at last year’s Cannes festival would suggest, benefiting from its Dominican Republic locations and swaying guitar score, plus characteristically fearless work from Rampling, who plunges headlong into her character’s assertive prejudices.
Enigmatic, lyrical and oblique as a poem, Claire Denis’s The Intruder(L’Intrus) presents a near-Cubist narrative that’s fragmented and filleted to the point that realism falls to the wayside delegitimized, leaving only enough connective tissue to tease out the plot’s moral and formal ambiguities through unexpected continuities, visual textures, and subtle editing rhythms.
Near the French-Swiss frontier, a man near the edge of physical collapse tries to delay crossing the border of his mortality by pushing his aging body to its limits, swimming in a glacial alpine lake, lying naked in the snow, bicycling furiously up forested hills, bedding considerably younger women. Like the local feral dogs who sniff and roam and yelp in packs, instinctual urges drive him toward self-preservation and ultimate reckoning of his place in a community. Denis has called this film “my vision of a dead man” because under the knotted scar down his chest, he carries a stranger’s transplanted heart. She even asked her star, the authoritative Michel Subor, to listen to Johnny Cash’s singing, to hear in his voice “that death is coming closer.”
Viewers trained to follow a whodunit’s logic may resist the exhilarating unpredictability Denis invests in every frame of this film. Concealed in ellipses, the plot suggests that appearances hide essences: we may or may not believe that the protagonist’s shadowy international past makes him capable of murder. One character advises, “You’ve led a life full of surprises in France, Switzerland, and Russia. You’re lucky to be starting a new life at this age.” Yet when he revisits Tahiti, his past friends not only warmly welcome this intruder’s return but sensitively audition young men so that he can enact, however deludely, his desired reconciliation with a lost son. Do the raw and grainy interpolations from an old film (an abandoned 1965 work by the director Paul Gégauff that starred the young Michel Subor) illustrate his past as it was? Or is this the fantasy he wished to live?
Not even the timeline proceeds without question: How long did it take the scars of the heart transplant to heal? Whose burial mound are those Tahitian workers constructing? Who is the Russian woman who turns up in every locale: an angel of death, or an embodiment of his body’s fallibility? We are caught in a world marked by long, beautiful, and inexplicable shots of the sea, vast distances and oceanic vistas seen from a majestic height, in the company of an astringent protagonist who resists easy identification. Putting together these pieces is like reconstructing a story out of a stray overheard conversation.
Subjectivity is key to Claire Denis’s exploration of physicality and textures, with visual expressions of the personal: a mother walks protecting her baby’s fragile head, the hero buzzes his electric razor in a primeval mist-shrouded forest, a face appears frozen beneath the ice of a lake, a blind Chinese masseuse touches the surgical scar. Not a single shot in Agnes Godard’s tensile compositions and supple camerawork even approaches a visual cliché, just as not a single edit fails to surprise. Together they stage one visual coup after another of stunning immediacy: a snowfall blankets a Korean city, the patterns of a tropical fabric billow sensuously in the breeze, the strut of a catamaran speeds over the impossibly aquamarine water of Tahiti. When a giant ball suspended from an ocean liner’s prow opens to discharge a riot of colored streamers that shoot through a cloud of confetti, it’s an emotional climax that seems experienced by the film, not by the problematic and obstinately terse protagonist.
Filmmaking of this caliber makes it even more regrettable that L’Intrus marks the final gasp from the now eviscerated Wellspring, the company that brought U.S. audiences an array of treasures from la belle France (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Les Destinées sentimentales, Pas sur la bouche, Notre Musique, Twentynine Palms, Kings and Queen) as well as adventurous cinema from around the world (Russian Ark,vGoodbye Dragon Inn, Crimson Gold, Madame Sata) and edgy English-language fare (Palindromes, The Brown Bunny, Funny Ha Ha). Just as sadly, this film (along with von Trier’s Manderlay) also represents the final work from the late Humbert Balsan, an actor in Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac, Rivette’s Noroît, and Pialat’s Loulou, and an imaginative producer identified with Youssef Chahine and Merchant-Ivory.
A refined work of highly controlled and contained image-making, Lithuania’s Land of Glass (Stiklo salis) creates an air of apprehension around its Bergman-like story of a middle-class mother afflicted with an unsettling anomie and strange impulses. In her first fiction feature, documentarian Janina Lapinskaite moves her troubled heroine out of her comfortable upscale rustic cottage, setting her out in poetic environments among images of snow and death and water, using angular compositions and extraordinarily fluid camerawork that swoops and swings and cranes with ease. Unequipped with much backstory, the scenario quietly works to deepen the birth anxiety into an existential dilemma beyond mere postpartum depression. For additional verisimilitude, the director casts a real-life mother and daughter in the leading roles, and adds a dog that produces a litter of puppies at roughly the same time to provide symbolic parallels. Shot with exquisitely stylized color oppositions (blue against orange), edited with silken timing, and accompanied by an accomplished orchestral score, the film has undeniably refined visuals, and the polite surfaces lend a not inappropriate airless quality to the austere rectitude of the story, yet the film seems more opaque than transparent.
Set adrift by his wife’s recent demise, the desolate protagonist in Krzysztof Zanussi’s Persona Non Grata immediately receives further unwelcome lessons when he returns to his post as Poland’s ambassador to Uruguay, bringing her ashes with him. Under the heavy gilt mirrors of the embassy, this mature veteran of the Solidarity struggles faces his own insecurities about the past as well as the dawning realization that his idealism, civility, and integrity have made him a disposable relic of the twentieth century. Whether in the hot Montevideo sun or the cold light of Warsaw and Moscow, his colleagues seem to disrespect him with openly self-interested careerism or subtly concealed treachery, while a new brutish economic reality reigns (or was it there all along?). Thus, a young Polish expatriate at a seaside resort called Paradiso, by day a hotel bellboy but by night a male stripper, unreflectively thanks Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev for his newfound freedom to join Ukrainian prostitutes in service to shady Mafiosi.
“There’s dust now instead of ideals,” says Zanussi’s hero. “Is that why we served time in internment camps?” Haunted by a sense that his future is now all past, that the world is changing and moving on without him, this man of cultivation is forced to rethink his relationship with the world before it’s too late (or, as Zanussi’s script puts it, before “the great story of his life is over”). As a former collaborator of Kieslowski, it’s no surprise that the director introduces the determining power of chance: accidental missteps, missed appointments, and misunderstandings fall together serially like so many dominos in a row, creating security breaches that cast suspicion on the ambassador’s competence, bringing homeland inspectors seeking evidence to prove his neurotic alcoholism and mental instability. To convey this shifting world of slippery loyalties, where his hero no longer knows whom to trust but trusts anyway, Zanussi gives major acting roles to two other directors — Jerzy Stuhr and Nikita Mikhalkov — for this literate and adult drama that turns inward even as it looks outward. When Wojciech Kilar’s elegant music culminates in an unexpectedly moving “music of the spheres,” the accumulation of insults to this imperfect man of principle becomes palpable, like graffiti scrawled across an Old Master.
“The poetic makes you feel alive,” says master photographer Gyorgy Oddner in Jan Troell’s wonderfully harmonious Presence (Närvarande), a serenely poetic study of this onetime assistant to Richard Avedon in the early 1950s, also a drummer in a jazz combo (“rhythm is the oldest form of expression: beating time”), and above all an artist who shares with the Swedish director a boundless curiosity and an innate creative nobility, both travelers in quest of truth and beauty. Oddner’s photography transcends documentary recording as he seeks to capture an inner human vitality (“A moment is eternity. It’s only the moment that lives”). As Troell follows him across continents, Oddner snaps young lovers at a Moscow amusement park, Sumo wrestlers in competition, and oblivious cubicle denizens in a Manhattan office building, but also tries to render the naturally graceful curves of a plant’s tendrils or the accidental beauty of a wind-broken umbrella splayed on the pavement (“We must allow life’s compositions to speak”). Moving reminiscences about his childhood, when his Swedish father and Russian mother separated and the latter brought him to Tallinn for a period of dire poverty (“rats ran over us at night”), prompt Oddner to revisit the present-day Estonian capital, as Troell follows with his eye for the lyrical detail and the significant human gesture. Outside Sweden, not much has been heard from Troell since his celebrated early ’70s diptych of The Emigrants and The New Land, but this valedictory appreciation of his friend’s unique engagement with the world (“You have to be involved in other people and in other people’s emotional life”) shows with resolute clarity how much we have been missing.
The sole non-premiere in the European Union Festival’s lineup, this beautiful film was worth repeating, all the more as it was joined by Staffan Lamm’s long-overdue The Russell Tribunal, the first distillation from eighteen hours of recovered footage Lamm shot at Bertrand Russell’s 1967 war crimes tribunal in Sweden. The resulting ten-minute short focuses on investigating the U.S. military’s use of fragmentation bombs whose sole function in warfare is to kill or injure humans, as participants Tariq Ali, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir witness while a Vietnamese man and boy remove their garments to reveal their horrific wounds and scars as evidence. Only the lack of funds prevents the release of the remaining reels of historical testimony.
Flying the flag of the Czech Republic and shot in what now looks like richly detailed celluloid and luxurious widescreen, Shark in the Head (Zralok v hlave) counts as Mária Procházková’s whimsical yet poignant feature debut. It’s no surprise that this award-winning animator uses optical tricks and camera distortions to express the perceptual derangements that alternately plague and delight her hero. As played by the compelling Oldrich Kaiser, this handsome yet seedy middle-ager surveys the neighborhood from his street-level window, variously distributing yellow rubber duckies to passersby, or proposing marriage to likely ladies, or studying shapes hidden in the clouds overhead, or mapping out elaborate lotto number strategies while he enjoys beer and cigars. In truth, he’s no stranger to frightening moments of visual disruption either, when hands suddenly appear poised at windows, or infusions curl menacingly in water, or a posse of Santa Clauses approaches. Nor can he believe his ears: is that a cosmic rumbling or a clothes dryer tumbling? Like a Central European brother of David Cronenberg’s Spider, he accepts his inexplicable fate as a victim because, after all, “everybody has a shark in the head.” Obsessively drawing chickens, he assembles them like a filmmaker and adds an appropriate cock-a-doodle-do, whereupon they stand up and dance in joyous animation, a highpoint of this both emotionally and visually arresting work.
Hosannas to director Wolfgang Murnberger for his anti-clerical detective thriller Silentium (it means “Shut up” in Latin, explains one character), in dialogue with the buddy movie conventions of Hollywood film products, yet filled with humor black as a cleric’s cassock. A bemused aging doper, fired not only from the police force but even from a lowly store detective’s post, finds himself investigating an apparent suicide. The deceased had accused an archbishop of sexual molestation, but then an inquisitive Filipina nurse disappears, all while Austria’s Salzburg Music Festival readies a production of Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio” set in Yankee-occupied Baghdad. The ensuing pursuit incorporates some ostentatiously lurid torture, the requisite car chase through Salzburg’s freshly scrubbed and glittering streets, and a witty action replay of North by Northwest‘s famous crop duster that terrorized Cary Grant, only accomplished here with a puny remote controlled model plane. Nothing if not irreverent, the profane plot impudently blames the homicides on an ecclesiastical scheme to fund new priest recruitment, sparing no sympathy for the hypocritical clergymen while saving its reverence for human freedoms. Along with some appealingly low-key banter, there are pointed digs at Hitler and Wagner and other flaws in the divine plan, as Murnberger pauses for the occasional surreal computer-generated joke, such as a nightmare foosball game played with human bodies.
Jackboots pound Munich’s cobblestones once more in Sophie Scholl — The Last Days (Sophie Scholl: Die letzten Tage), Germany’s latest 21st century retro probe at its mid-20th century past, eliciting brilliant performances from Julia Jentsch and Alexander Held (both had lesser roles in last year’s Downfall/Der Untergang). Using court transcripts and first-hand reports of the actual events surrounding the Third Reich’s crushing of the anti-Nazi White Rose movement, the film details the four-day whirlwind in which Scholl and her brother distribute protest leaflets at their university only to endure arrest, interrogation, a public show trial, and ultimately execution for high treason. The heart of the drama lies in a beautifully modulated series of interrogations between Gestapo inquisitor Held, guardedly trying out various scenarios to ascertain this innocent-looking girl’s true motives, and the frightened but determined Jentsch, moving from instinctive self-preservation to pure transparency. Not some predetermined cat-and-mouse routine, this registers on their faces as an evolving duel of thrusts and parries, with questions and answers thrown as lances: Why are all the Jews disappearing? Should public education fund anti-government protest? Is the German defeat at Stalingrad the beginning of the end? What if Hitler is insane? From there, director Marc Rothemund moves this juggernaut plot to the courtroom where a frothing, barking judge (apparently an accurate portrayal) ups the already highly charged dramatic surface with his invective until the nervy heroine warns, “You will soon be standing where we are standing.”
Sophie Scholl clearly earned her status as a martyr for free speech, and while this film creates an honorable memorial, it also indulges a religious bent as shafts of hagiographic light illumine the righteous Scholl in her final hours. While the film takes explicit pains to discredit a communist woman who has surrendered to fatalism, it also portrays Scholl as oddly uninvolved: the initial instinctive excuse she gives the interrogator that she is “apolitical” proves to be not so far off the mark: as presented here, she may oppose the Nazi regime yet apparently espouses no other ideas or systems, as if the return of Kaiser Wilhelm’s reign might satisfy her. Still, with content this stirring, chock full of unsettling parallels to the U.S. Patriot Act, these details are not deal-breakers, and the director steers his craft straight ahead with crisply edited visuals toward a literal coup that hits like a truck.