30 May 2022

Feriengewitter: a review

Dani (Étienne Charle) and Lucie (Sandra Puhlmann) in Feriengewitter

East German cinema is something of a new field for me, but if films like Eine Liebe in Deutschland and Feriengewitter are representative, it’s one I’m happy to continue exploring. The East German film Feriengewitter (Holiday Storm), directed by Karola Hattop, is a fun little made-for-TV family movie that’s two parts The Parent Trap and one part National Lampoon’s Vacation, with an 80s Europop soundtrack and a bit of seasoning from To Kill a Mockingbird. This sounds like a combination that shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Feriengewitter somehow manages its disparate slapstick / screwball comedic elements, its family-drama secrets and its urban-rural tensions with a deft hand and a subtle sensitivity.

Basically, the film starts with a Berlin family in crisis. Peter and Rosi, a middle-aged couple, bicker with each other whenever their son Dani isn’t in the room. They’re tired of each other and want to get a divorce, but Peter doesn’t want to spring the news on Dani at the start of the summer holiday. Instead, they’ll wait it out until after their holiday is over before signing the papers. On a suggestion from Dani, they decide to visit the far southeast—the Elbe Sandstone Mountains on the border with Czechoslovakia—for a road trip over their holiday. However, while in the village, Dani meets a cheeky, precocious, cigarette-smoking, gum-chewing tomboy named Lucie, who immediately strikes his interest. In his attempts to impress and befriend Lucie, he ends up accidentally discovering his parents’ plan to divorce. And then there’s the weird old forester who lives alone out in the woods outside the village, who also supposedly keeps a mummy of his dead wife in the attic…

Feriengewitter at first looks like it’s going to be something of a bildungsroman for Dani: a boy going out into the world, meeting his first crush, going on adventures in the countryside, eventually asserting his agency and deciding where and how he will live in the face of his parents’ divorce. And to be truthful: there is a lot of that bildungsroman in here. In between taking stupid dares bull-baiting, trespassing in the old forester’s house and downing half a bottle of honey schnapps (with the inevitable consequences the next morning), Dani does develop as a character, attempts to find his own place in the world, attempts to take responsibility for himself and the people he cares about. Lucie, despite her reputation as the ‘horror of the agricultural commune’, ends up advising him and encouraging him throughout, and also asserting her own preferences; this is, in a more limited way, a growth-story for her as well.

But ultimately, it’s the parents who are faced with the decision to grow up. Dani and Lucie are the ones who seem to hold the most functional moral compasses in the film. Peter and Rosi, on the other hand, find themselves at pains to justify their decision to split—not just to Dani, but even to each other and to themselves. We get hints that both of them are half-heartedly trying to start affairs behind each other’s backs, even though neither of them really likes their new flings as much as they like each other. And even their arguments and attempts to hide the truth from Dani have a ring of falsity to them. Thankfully, the film does end up allowing Peter and Rosi to sit down and talk to each other rather than at each other—even though it’s an understated scene, it’s nonetheless quite emotionally impactful.

The film’s pretty clearly a low-rent production. The limited-range cinematography, lighting effects, the sound quality (some of the dialogue is close to inaudible), the Vermona keyboard soundtrack, the animated cartoon lightning-bolts, both the urban and the rural set pieces—all of them scream ‘made for TV’ and ‘bottle-cap budget’. But despite its limitations, Feriengewitter more than makes up in heart what it lacks in technical effects.

Indeed, one of the reasons that the film works so well is that the acting is so convincing. Étienne Charle’s subtle expressions—from smile to sulk to scoff to stare—make his Dani instantly believable as a pubescent boy who tries to navigate his parents’ estrangement and immanent divorce at the same time as he sorts out his own first explorations into romantic affection with Lucie. Acting opposite him, Sandra Puhlmann easily holds her own with an irrepressible, plucky, foul-mouthed charm. And even the tired, squabbling parents, played by Joachim Lätsch and Bärbel Röhl, handle their roles well, such that we can believe that there’s still chemistry between them even though they say they’re at quits. It’s rare even today to see actors of this age handle so deftly a script which crams this degree of emotional complexity into a ninety-minute runtime.

There are too many TV shows and movies nowadays, both in America and elsewhere, which glamourise or trivialise divorce: which sympathise with the adults over the kids; which treat individual desire, emotional and physical gratification as the natural goods which should be served by marriage, rather than any sort of common whole; and which treat marriage as completely soluble when those goods are not served to one spouse’s satisfaction. Feriengewitter shows us, in ways both subtle and overt, the seriousness of the impact on the kids, as well as on the adults—as Peter and Rosi look over old photographs of themselves with Dani on the dining-room table at their flat in Berlin, for example. It’s also a film that doesn’t patronise or sugarcoat childhood. With the foregoing caveat that I’m evaluating Feriengewitter at a remove both in cultural and physical space (an American watching a German film) and in time (an adult in the 2020s watching a kids’ film from the 1980s), it’s still somewhat refreshing to see a film made for kids that portrays tweens and early teens fighting, cussing, smoking cigarettes, swilling hard liquor, getting revenge and doing stupid life-threatening stunts to impress each other… without approving of it, and also without using a sledgehammer to moralise over it.

Watching it today, though, I can imagine a good part of Feriengewitter’s appeal would come from its Ostalgie value. The East German kids who would have grown up watching this movie on television would be probably five to ten years older than I am, and I can well imagine it has the same value to them that kids’ TV shows from the 1990s (like Ghostwriter) have for me. Considering even this factor, though, objectively I still think this is very much a solid film with a well-crafted script. I very much recommend it.

02 May 2022

Eine Liebe in Deutschland: a review

Stani (Piotr Lysek) and Pauline (Hanna Schygulla) in Eine Liebe in Deutschland

The 1983 East German film Eine Liebe in Deutschland (A Love in Germany), directed by Andrzej Wajda, is half-romance, half-political morality play. There is a semi-romantic central plotline in it. But more than that it is a film about moral trauma, specifically the moral trauma inflicted upon the German population by the fascist ideology. The presence of a mechanised, militarised state in the background running everything has a corrosive effect upon the soul. This film is, in a certain sense, a meditation on this corrosion: it is a meditation on how decent, caring, ordinary people in Germany could turn cruel in the presence of this ideology. It showcases how even petty jealousy, greed, suspicion, grief, fear of reprisal—what the Catholics would call ‘venialities’—can be alchemically transmuted into inhuman atrocities in the presence of such an ideology.

The framing alternates between Herbert Kropp (Otto Sander) and his son Klaus in the present day, exploring the town of Brombach in an attempt to find out what happened to Kropp’s mother; and flashbacks to the Second World War and Pauline Kropp’s life as a soldier’s wife on the home front. This device is, unfortunately, handled with all the narrative subtlety and deftness of a crowbar. The transitions between past and present are usually there to serve a cause. That is: they highlight a point of irony or black humour; or they demonstrate certain hypocrisies or euphemisms or failures of memory in those who lived during that time; or they explore the traumas and survivors’ guilt that afflicts them.

The central storyline, about the love-affair between the married Pauline Kropp (Hanna Schygulla) and the younger Polish POW Stanislaw Zasada (Piotr Lysak), is in a certain sense only the central hanger on which the rest of the mobile spins. The tale is told through the eyes of Kropp’s son Herbert, who provides the occasional narration from his current perspective. Even though Kropp is an adulteress and thus clearly morally compromised, in a certain sense she’s the most morally consistent and centred of her peers. Her ‘friends’ in the village all to some degree play a role in her and Zasada being discovered and arrested by the Gestapo. The case lands in the lap of an army commander, Lieutenant Meyer (Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose intentions start off as ‘good’ to a certain extent, but whose decision-making is at every step compromised in grotesque ways: by Nazi ideology, by the orders of his superiors, and by ‘regulations’. In the end, Kropp is sent to a concentration camp, and Zasada is (incompetently) hanged.

For some reason I feel like the male characters in this movie got something of a fairer shake than the female ones. Whether it’s Herr Wyler (Gérard Desarthe), the sub-rosa antifascist who unsuccessfully pleads with his cupiditous wife not to inform on Pauline; or Melchior who allows Zasada to eat at the table with him despite it being against regulations—and later turns a blind eye to his affair with Kropp; or even Lieutenant Meyer who makes these half-arsed attempts within the scope of the Nazi bureaucracy to let Kropp and Zasada ‘off the hook’… they seem to get more sympathy from Wajda than the women do. At the same time, though, Wajda lets us see more clearly how the women face their moral universe and the contours within which they allow themselves to make compromises with the Nazi state and ideology.

To a certain degree, I feel like this movie deserved to have been scripted with greater subtlety and care than it was. The acting, particularly from Schygulla and Mueller-Stahl, is truly top-class; and the greater point of the film regarding the stories of the war that went untold and the secrets and small acts of collaboration that went unspoken in guilt or deliberate misremembrance—is a point worth exploring and telling well. (I feel like I need to watch that Kate Winslet movie The Reader after this; it seems to explore a similar point about guilt, memory and moral trauma.)

There are some darkly comedic moments to the movie, like when Meyer, his fumbling subordinate Schulze and Dr Borg all attempt to use hair and eye palettes, measuring tapes and phrenology equipment in an attempt to prove that Zasada is ‘Aryan’ so that Kropp can be gotten off of the charge of breaking the laws against ‘Rassenschande’; or when Meyer pathetically attempts to bribe a Polish high school teacher into being Zasada’s executioner. However, these flickers of farce only serve to demonstrate the dehumanising monstrosity that undergirds all of these comic absurdities: the treatment of human beings as essentially equivalent to breeding-stock, or the absolute negotiability of dignity and conscience in the face of a state with no regard for human life.

The romance plot is carried almost entirely by Schygulla’s on-screen magnetism – her complete command of her facial features and her ability to charm and smoulder with nothing more than a glance. Her male-lead counterpart, Lysak, is competent (and he can chew scenery with the best of them, especially during the medical examination scene), but most of the time he seems a bit hapless in the face of the shopkeeper’s shielded—but deep and scalding—emotions.

In the end, if I were to recommend A Love in Germany, it would be on the basis of Schygulla’s performance, as well as on some of the disturbing-but-needful ethical-psychological explorations in the middle. But the framing and a lot of the overarching narration is needlessly ham-handed, and I feel like the point about guilt and memory could have been made far better without Otto Sander’s fourth-wall-breaking monologues at the viewer at the beginning and end. I suspect that there are better movies about life-behind-the-lines in WWII Germany out there than this one.