New German visions


In the years since the New German Cinema first exploded, a number of talented directors have appeared on the scene, such as Tom Tykwer, whose Lola rennt (Run Lola Run, 1998) is a race-against-time thriller in which Lola  (Franka Potente) must save her boyfriend from assassination by drug dealers. Deftly mixing animation, live action, digital special effects, and a lively rock score, Run Lola Run is notable for telling its story with three different scenarios. Doris Dörrie is best known for her feminist comedy Männer . . . (Men …, 1985); her earlier films, such as Im Innern des Wals (In the Belly of the Whale, 1985), represented a strong feminist vision within a more serious context. In the Belly of the Whale opens with the violent beating of teenager Carla (Janna Marangosoff) by her policeman father, Erwin (Peter Sattmann), who alternates between brutalizing her and buying her expensive presents to compensate.

Fed up, Carla leaves home to search for her mother, Marta (Silvia Reize), who ran away ten years earlier after also being repeatedly beaten by Erwin. When Carla finally tracks her down, she discovers Marta has become a prostitute. Returning home in despair, Carla is murdered by her father. The film’s uncompromising scenario reflects Dörrie’s own jaded view of relationships between men and women. Her other films include Paradies (Paradise, 1986), Ich und Er (Me and Him, 1988), and Happy Birthday, Türke! (Happy Birthday, 1992).


While the New German Cinema was a key movement in the period from 1970 to the late 1990s, spreading its stripped-down style around the world, filmmakers elsewhere were re-creating the cinema in yet another new form. The Belgian director Chantal Akerman came to the United States after quitting film school at home. Her first job was as a cashier for a porno theater in New York. Profoundly influenced by Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965), Akerman was determined to direct; she claimed to have stolen the money to finance her early film, Hotel Monterey (1972), a grim, completely silent look at a shabby welfare hotel. Here she expressed an interest in the transient nature of modern urban life, with an eye toward spaces that underscore the discord of mobility; hotels, train stations, and the people who move within these spaces.

Je, tu, il, elle (I, You, He, She, 1974), shot in stark black-and-white on a minimal budget, was Akerman’s breakthrough feature-length film, for which she also wrote the screenplay and played the lead role. The camera follows a woman, Julie, who seems lost in a modern industrial world. In one scene, Julie sits at a table compulsively eating piles of sugar for no apparent reason; in the next scene, she hitchhikes, gets a ride from a trucker (Niels Arestrup),  and seduces him. Back in her apartment, she makes love to a woman (Claire Wauthion). Because the camera records the action in a detached, almost clinical manner, this scene has often been noted for its unusual portrayal of sexuality.

But the film was merely a curtain raiser for her next effort, the groundbreaking Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976), about the daily activities of a Belgian housewife and prostitute. For much of the story Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) lives her life alone, compulsively cooking, cleaning, and entertaining her son, living a life of quiet desperation. All the while, she welcomes customers into her home. This routine existence is finally punctuated by a scene in which Jeanne suddenly, and without warning, kills a client with a pair of scissors after having sex with him, in a gesture of disgust and despair. The film ends with an almost unendurably long take of Jeanne sitting at her dining room table after the murder, listlessly staring out the window into the night, as the glare of a neon sign washes over her impassive face. Jeanne Dielman s depth and detail are the work of a great auteur fully in control of the medium (indeed, many people still regard the film as the high point of Akerman’s career), and its solid critical reception afforded Akerman the power to make projects of her own choosing.

Stanislas Merhar and Sylvie Testud in La Captive (The Captive, 2000) by Chantal Akerman.

News from Home (1977) and Les Rendezvous d’Anna (The Meetings of Anna, 1978) are equally personal in their intent and execution. In News from Home, Akerman lets the camera stare at urban spaces, while offscreen she reads letters from a mother to an absent daughter. Similarly, Les Rendez-vous dAnna uses sameness to create drama. The camera follows director Anna Silver (Aurore Clément) as she travels through a series of empty spaces—hotels, train stations, underground railways—on a promotional tour for her latest film. Les Rendez-vous dAnna contains Akerman’s signature long takes, avoidance of close-ups, naturalistic sound, and lack of conventional narrative.

 Sexual encounters are unfulfilling, and the film encourages a cerebral audience identification rather than a superficially pleasurable audience experience. Toute une nuit (All Night Long, 1982) continues this theme of personal solitude, as it follows a series of random sexual encounters during one particular night. In 2000, Akerman created the stunning story of love and obsession La Captive (The Captive) based on a narrative by Marcel Proust, which documents a rich young man’s passion for a young woman he wants to possess body and soul. Akerman proved herself able to swing easily between genres and moods with the searing documentary South (Sud, 1999), about the brutal 1998 lynching of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas.

The film was shot on location shortly after the murder took place. Typically for Akerman, she simply records the places and the people, both black and white, who were part of the lynching, refusing to make obvious judgments and firmly acknowledging her outsider status. But the film’s last shot, in which the camera retraces the route by which Byrd was dragged to his death by a chain attached to the back of a pickup truck, is an ample indictment of the social attitudes that allow such atrocities to persist.

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