Trivia Contest Solution

A few days ago, I challenged readers to identify this film still:


I was a bit disappointed that nobody came through. Mr. M wanted to know the answer. The still is from the 1963 Czech science-fiction movie Ikarie XB-1. The entire original version, with good English subtitles, can be found on YouTube and is highly recommended. It's a moody, philosophical film about a crew of astronauts who stumble upon an abandoned ship from an earlier voyage and much else besides. As you might expect from a Czech movie, the futuristic spacecraft furnishings are stylish and appealing. There's even a party scene in which we hear the easy-listening music of the future and watch astronauts dance to it!

The New Brother Theodore DVD is Out

I blogged before about To My Great Chagrin, the documentary about Brother Theodore, scion of a wealthy Jewish Düsseldorf family who was chased out of Germany by the Nazis, landed in the U.S., and started a career as the strangest, darkest, absurdest stand-up 'comedian' you're ever likely to see. He called his bit 'stand-up tragedy.'

I've now got news that the producer, Jeff Sumerel, is offering a new, enhanced DVD with interviews with Woody Allen, Eric Bogosian, and many others. You can -- and should -- order it here.

Neve Campbell May Wish to Avoid Denmark

This unsettlingly thorough 'Danish Neve Campbell Webpage' is a pretty good candidate for inclusion in the list of 23 ancient websites that are still alive. It raises more questions than it answers: Why Denmark? Why Neve Campbell? Is there a dank basement waiting in Copenhagen for Neve if she ever meets the website's founder? And most pressing of all, hvorfor er stedet ikke på dansk? 

Danish Neve Campbell Webpage
At any rate, you can follow Neve's latest news by installing AvantGo on your Hewlett-Packard PDA (note: you may have to return to 2002).

Ed Philp Reviews the Hunger Games

Sometime guest-blogger Ed Philp has a neat sneak preview of the movie sensation of the year in the US which will probably be the movie sensation of the year in Germany soon:

Hi, it’s Ed Philp, gratefully guest-blogging for a “Retourkutsche” post (is there an equivalent word in English?). Germany needs to prepare itself for the next installment of verifiably non-European teenage entertainment that is about to arrive at cinemas throughout the country, namely, the movie version of the bestselling book  “The Hunger Games”, or “Panem” for the German version.

 The Hunger Games is a quintessentially American teenager book (yes, I am aware that the Japanese Battle Royale preceded it). It posits a dystopian future in which – as a result of various events – the US is divided into various districts and the Capitol. Each year, the Capitol organizes “Hunger Games” in which teenage participants fight to the death until there is one survivor, egged on by millions of (semi-compelled) viewers. US entertainment has a very long tradition in this genre; Blade Runner, Stephen King’s The Long Walk, and many others. What makes The Hunger Games somewhat unique?

 It is pitched to teenagers, involves virtually no sex among 17 year old protagonists (if I recall, the heroine of the book had never kissed anyone before being drafted into the Games, and then did it only under duress for various complicated survival reasons), and includes remarkable levels of violence. Poisoning, knifing, spear-throwing, animal mauling and several explosive endings all play a role in ensuring that the final couple make it the end of the Games. Sound a little bit familiar? It’s Twilight on steroids (chaste love story that otherwise features dismemberment, murder, the walking dead and pledges of love “to the death”).

 The book leaves various components of the story open: We are provided in the book with remarkably little information on the protagonists, Katniss and Peeta, except that one has “breasts” (mentioned once during the book) and one has blond wavy hair and is strong and compact, like all bakers. The film fills in these details, of course casting exceptionally good looking people in the roles. The sexual tension/pitch will be immediately evident just based on the trailer. These two perfect examples of teenage male and female will ultimately get together and… produce babies (which is indeed how the whole Hunger Games series ends). In the meantime, wholesale slaughter will ensue. Once again, it is remarkable how US culture shuns natural sexual relations while placing a premium on ultraviolence. The entire Hunger Games book turns on the various vivid ways in which people die, have died, will die.

 I imagine that The Hunger Games will be avidly watched in the US, and I somehow suspect that it will make particular inroads in various conservative districts. What story could be more compelling in an election year – an essentially fascist Capitol holds an honest, simple and hardworking (largely agrarian and trade-oriented) District population in bondage, forcing them to serve up their prime and innocent youth for the spectacle of the elite masses each year. The only social construct on which one can have any reliance is family and maybe friends. Homespun regional traditions and icons loom large as symbols of resistance to the Capitol. Individual resourcefulness and essentially god-given luck play a role, as do cunning, Teamwork and social collaboration are paths to doom. Individual sacrifice is accorded its due, but collective sacrifice is never an option. Those closest to the ground (who know how to hunt birds with a bow and arrow) are of course the best off, since guns have – of course – been confiscated and prohibited. Other nations and a global economy do not exist in the storyline. In numerous instances, salvation – coming from the sky – is provided through essentially capitalist elements, namely sponsorship by donors. Private charity is key to those in dire circumstances; public welfare does not exist. The “public” and the state are, as a whole, the enemy.

 I’ll be extremely interested to see the German reaction to this most American of movies. I, for one, have already reserved tickets. This will be a small cultural icon, and I want to see how it is received here.

As for me, I have remained completely ignorant of the HG hype up to now, not out of any aversion, but just because I like to see movies completely, stone-cold ignorant of everything about them. In fact, for precisely this reason, I didn't even read Ed's review, so I hope he didn't anything defamatory in there...

German Joys DVD Review: 'Crime and Punishment' by the BBC

Over the weekend, I watched the BBC's 2002 adaptation of Crime and Punishment, which is now available on DVD. It's brilliant. The whole show lasts just over three hours; the plot has been judiciously and respectfully pruned to fit into this time. John Simm plays Raskolnikov with splendid intensity, but for me, Ian McDiarmid as Porfiry Petrovich is the high point. Just the right amount of creepy faux-camaraderie mingled with oleaginous charm. There's rather a lot of directing going on, with plenty of close-ups, jump cuts, intriguingly framed shots up and down stairwells, and a dream sequence or two. But there's nothing self-indulgent about all this: the dissociating directorial techniques force the viewer ever closer to the core of Raskolnikov's disintegrating personality.

Much of the film was shot on-location in St. Petersburg during the summer, and the characters have the sweaty, unwashed look of authenticity. Carriages splash mud and horseshit everywhere, wallpaper peels off, windows are grimy and cracked. You get the sense that keeping clean -- for that matter, keeping alive -- is a constant uphill struggle for those condemned to live in cramped, dingy tenements. Raskolnikov's gradual unraveling is handled masterfully, with each successive stage marked by one of Raskolnikov's successive visits to police headquarters, located in a giant amphitheatre-shaped building which seems to have already 'caught' anyone unfortunate enough to stray into its giant, vacant courtyard. The director, Julian Jarrold, succeeds in showing the combination of external and internal pressures that force Raskolnikov to his confession. Just as in the novel, the tension increases until the viewer's nerves fray, making the final, cathartic moment that much more of a paradoxical relief.

Strongly recommended!


Aguirre: The Wrath of Perry

Werner Herzog is apparently making a documentary about death row inmates in Texas:

ZDF Enterprises has picked up Werner Herzog's forthcoming docu "Gazing Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life," about death row inmates.

In the film, Herzog -- who is enjoying a hit with his docu "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," examining prehistoric paintings in Gaul's Chauvet cave -- discusses life and death with the prisoners and examines their stories and crimes, which he describes as "a gaze into the abyss of the human soul"..

Among the inmates are two men convicted of triple murder, another who killed his girlfriend and her two mentally retarded sons, and a woman, one of only 10 on Texas' death row, charged with abducting a baby and killing the child's mother.

I am ordinarily somewhat wary of foreign news crews covering capital punishment in the U.S. The results can be tendentious and sentimental. However, I have a lot of faith in Herzog, who continues to be capable of making brilliant films.

Werner Herzog as Pharma Giant

In an upcoming Simpsons episode, Werner Herzog will play a "German pharma industrialist" (h/t JR).

Herzog describes his "ecstatic" idea of truth in this lecture, hosted by Boston University's website (h/t SK). Excerpt:

History offers one analogy to the extent of [change brought about by] the virtual, other world that we are now being confronted with. For centuries and centuries, warfare was essentially the same thing, clashing armies of knights, who fought with swords and shields. Then, one day, these warriors found themselves staring at each other across canons and weapons. Warfare was never the same. We also know that innovations in the development of military technology are irreversible. Here’s some evidence that may be of interest: in parts of Japan in the early seventeenth century, there was an attempt to do away with firearms, so that samurai could fight one another hand to hand, with swords again. This attempt was only very short-lived; it was impossible to sustain.

A couple of years ago, I came to grasp how confusing the concept of reality has become, in a strange way, through an incident that took place on Venice Beach in Los Angeles. A friend was having a little party in his backyard—barbecued steak—it was already dark, when, not far away, we heard a few gunshots that nobody took seriously until the police helicopters showed up with searchlights on and commanded us, over loudspeakers, to get inside the house. We sorted out the facts of the case only in retrospect: a boy, described by witnesses as around thirteen or fourteen years of age, had been loitering, hanging around a restaurant about a block away from us. As a couple exited, the boy yelled, This is for real, shot both with a semi-automatic, then fled on his skateboard. He was never caught. But the message [Botschaft] of the madman was clear: this here isn’t a videogame, these shots are for real, this is reality.