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Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Melbourne International Film Festival (3) - Peter Hourigan reviews AUSTERLITZ (Sergei Loznitsa, Russia)

It is only two months since I visited Auschwitz.  It was a tourist visit with many unique aspects.  Not least, our arrival. My tour group had an appointed time to meet our guide.  We were coming to Krakow and Auschwitz from Warsaw. In the summer, northern Europe carries out its road works, and we were getting caught up in long bottle necks on the highway, and delays of hours. I started getting anxious – would we get there in time?  And then, I’d remind myself that we were going in comfort to a place where thousands had not wanted to get there at any time.

With this fresh in my mind, Sergei Loznitsa’s new film Austerlitz had a very personal reverberance for me.  It reflects on the experience of visiting a concentration camp now that they have become tourist attractions. The film is composed of a series of long, static, contemplative shots looking not at gas chambers, crematoria, barracks, display boards, but at the throngs of tourists who are looking at these.  The shots are not connected in any shot-reverse shot way, but are rather each a separate element.  However, there is a degree of chronology as the film starts with tourists arriving at one of the camps, and ends as we watch them leave after their visit. There is no commentary, and no non-diegetic music or sound. The only descriptions of what may be there is when we’re close enough to hear one of the guides talking to their group.

The title is not explained in the film, but the reviewer in the Guardian noted,
The title of Sergei Loznitsa’s mysterious, challenging, disturbing film is said by the director to be inspired by the 2001 novel by WG Sebald, in which a character called Austerlitz, after an upbringing in Britain as a Kindertransport refugee, sees a Nazi propaganda film about the Theresienstadt camp and thinks that he recognises his mother. It is a book partly about the petrification and nullification of history created by official memorials. Of course, it has another meaning: the title looks in the first fraction of a second like “Auschwitz”. It is a linguistic trompe l’oeil. The horrors of the 20th century are receding into the dusty tomb of history, joining the battles of the 19th century: Auschwitz is a word that may one day have as little electrical charge as Austerlitz. 

The MIFF program note mistakenly says that it was filmed at Auschwitz. Rather, it was filmed at Dachau and Sachsenhausen, camps near Munich and Berlin. However, I am sure the experience would be the same at any of the camps open to today’s visitors.
This approach takes as granted that we know about the camps.  We no longer need to be told about the showers that were gas chambers, or the piles of hair, or glasses.  It is over sixty years since Resnais’ Night and Fog.  Instead, we can reflect on what the experience means today, and what it means for people visiting today.

The approach leaves the audience plenty of room to run through many thoughts, trivial and deeply philosophical. What do you wear to go to a place where thousands were killed?  Some T-shirts certainly seem inappropriate – rather juvenile slogans ‘daring’ to use ‘fuck’. But these are probably out of place in many places. There aren’t any priests running around covering up women’s bare shoulders – but after all does it really matter.  Very quickly a visit becomes a private thing, not a place to show off yourself.

I couldn’t help noticing in fact how it did become a private matter, even when you’re among the throngs visiting on a lovely summer’s day. You see this is in a simple moment – one person holding a door open for the person behind him. There is none of that eye contact we’re used to. The door holder does this without expecting any acknowledgement of his gesture. The person coming through is lost in their own thoughts anyway.

In fact, what are these thoughts? This is something the film can’t communicate. There are no talking heads exploring the experience. This is both appropriate and a limitation of the film.  Perhaps it is the right approach – because it is what such a visit means to you that is important, not what someone else made of it.

We can be critical of some of the people at the end turning the exit gates into an excuse for some more selfies. But perhaps for them this is a legitimate part of their visit – a reminder that they were able to come and go freely past gates with the notorious slogan, Arbeit Macht Frei.

Loznitsa’s film will not replace any of the films already made on this subject, but it is a unique perspective, and repays the time spent allowing it to provide you a space for your own reflections.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Vale Jerry Lewis - Dominic Case on Lewis as innovator (from a Facebook post)

I confess I never really enjoyed Jerry Lewis's humour. But one entirely different aspect of his story has escaped most of the obits and tributes. Lewis claims to have 'invented' the process of video assist. In his time this was a video camera bolted alongside the film camera, to give an instant replay of the take, rather than waiting overnight for rushes. Strictly not his invention, as the idea was patented some time before. But he seems to have exploited it more than anyone before him did.

Later the film camera was modified to split a video image off that was captured through the same lens, liberating the camera from its operator, the director from the camera, and leading to the Louma crane and arguably the decay of civilisation as we knew it.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Brisbane - The Merchant of Power and Productivity comes to GOMA. Ben Cho writes.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Billed as the “first major retrospective” of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s work in Australia, the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Brisbane is, in late 2017 and mid-2018, hosting a two-part showcase of the iconic German filmmaker’s work. While you’re not going to get the full Fassbinder experience from GOMA there’s a hell of a lot to celebrate coming to the big screen including the latest 4K restoration job of Eight Hours Don't Make a Day.

Fassbinder (r) as actor and director, Fox and his Friends
So much of Fassbinder’s brief-yet-legendary career is extraordinary by today’s standards and it is difficult to think of a filmmaker under 40 who built up a filmography quite like RWF’s. Everyone knows the rather jaw-dropping nature of his productivity which has few parallels today - maybe Takashi Miike rivals Fassbinder for work-ethic (and Fassbinder fans should check out the very Querelle-ish Miike film, Big Bang Love) but very few directors working the international auteur scene are pumping out 2, 3 or 4 films per year the way Fassbinder was back in the seventies.

Eight Hours Don't Make a Day
But behind the numbers in the filmography is another story of the financial numbers which probably tells you a lot about the genius Fassbinder had with the business of film as much as the art. While many might like to see Fassbinder as an “anarchist” he sure did have a shrewd way of working the German state funding system with the vast majority of his films relying on some form of public financing to get completed. When you consider the constant exploration of the dynamics of power between the keepers and the kept in his work, it is worth remembering that Fassbinder himself was also somewhat of an economic prisoner of the state to ensure his rebellious content could flourish. He wasn’t shy however in assessing the situation: “The established culture business needs outsiders like me.”

Plenty of ink has already been spilled on the work itself so it’s hardly worth offering much more than a cursory glance at the news headlines with stories of terrorism, sex scandals, racial tensions and a growing war between the alt-right and the regressive PC left. That’s evidence enough that Fassbinder’s legacy and the films’ themes and subject matter are as vital today as they were when released. Combative, vulgar, sentimental, sadistic, vicious - Fassbinder’s films are hardly stress-free viewing but as a package you won’t find a better way to excavate the dark soul of humanity struggling to break free of societal and sexual structures.  

What is somewhat interesting to consider is, in the climate we have today around political-correctness and sensitivity around LGBT rights and gender issues, how would a controversial figure like Fassbinder, a bisexual who was accused of being a misogynist and physically abusive, be treated if he was making films in the present? Would many of the regressive politically-correct left accept the portrayal of the women of Fassbinder’s world without a degree of hysteria and condemnation, and look for conflations between Fassbinder’s personal issues and his fictional characters? How would state funding agencies react to a pitch like Fassbinder’s Jailbait? Fassbinder once declared in an interview all his movies were “about incest”; how would such contentious statements be taken today?

Anyway back to GOMA and how “major” this retrospective is. While most of the film and TV work is there, GOMA have also included films in which Fassbinder starred or scripted so Volker Schlondorff’s Baal, Francois Ozon’s Water Drops on Burning Rocks, Wolf Gremm’s Kamikaze ‘89, Ulli Lommel’s Tenderness of the Wolves, the Straub/Huillet short The Bridegroom, The Comedienne and The Pimp and a bunch of Fassbinder-related docos are screening. It’s also worth mentioning a couple of screenings of work that don’t always get much attention: the only doco Fassbinder made Theatre in Trance and the TV-ish staging of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House titled Nora Helmer.

What’s missing? I couldn’t see a screening session for the controversial Wildwechsel (aka Jailbait) Fassbinder directed in 1972 about the sexual relationship between a 14-year-old and a 19-year-old; Bremen Freedom, the Margit Cartensen-starring film about an abused housewife who poisons her husband; Fassbinder’s contribution to the omnibus feature Germany in Autumn; the 44-minute faux variety-show film Like a Bird on a Wire; the TV staging of Women in New York; and the 1970 short film The Coffeehouse. In other words, it’s a pretty major retrospective all things considered.  

The only other major point to make about GOMA’s screenings is that they are free of charge to the public. Eight hours certainly make up the workingman’s day but given there’s a plethora of screenings on weekends and at nights during the week, there’s little excuse not to acquaint or reacquaint yourself with the master.