Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Never Look Away (2019)

Tom Schilling excels in this shadowy Gerhard Richter biography Never Look Away


Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Cast: Tom Schilling (Kurt Barnet), Sebastian Koch (Professor Carl Seeband), Paula Beer (Ellie Seeband), Saskia Rosendahl (Elisabeth May), Oliver Masucci (Professor Antonius van Verten), Ina Weisse (Martha Seeband), Rainer Bock (Dr Burghart Kroll), Hanno Koffler (Gunther Presueer)

In 2006 The Lives of Others propelled Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck to the fore-front of the European Arts Film circle. His follow-up, the Depp/Jolie starrer The Tourist was a disaster that sent him spiralling back. Now von Donnersmarck returns to German cinema – and the travails and divides of a country split for a large chunk of the 20th century into East and West – with Never Look Away a film heavily inspired by the life and work of famed German artist Gerhard Richter, with splashes of German history and it’s difficult relationship with both fascism and socialism.

Kurt Barnett is an artist growing up in Nazi Germany, living outside Dresden after his father lost his teaching job due to his reluctance to join the party. Barnett’s family is hit hard during the way – his two young uncles are killed, Dresden (and everyone he knows) is destroyed. Worst of all his inspirational artistic sister Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) is diagnosed with schizophrenia and is quietly killed during the Nazi programme of removing “unsuitable elements” from German society. That decision is taken by Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a natural survivor and amoral egotist who later makes the adjustment smoothly to living in the Socialist East. Barnett (played by Tom Schilling as a young man) meanwhile goes to East German art school, falling in love with a fashion student Ellie (Paula Beer), but struggling to find his own voice in an East Germany where all art must serve a social purpose. Will escape to the West bring freedom of thought?

Never Look Away is a mantra in the film, in an epic quasi-biography that explores the dark underbelly of German history, filtering the countries struggles to find some sort of freedom through the world of Art. It also has an unflinching eye for the losses and horrors of Nazi Germany, with the film never turning away from the brutal impact of the bombings of Dresden, the death of Kurt’s uncles on the Eastern front and (toughest of all) the shuffling of his tragic aunt into a gas chamber. 

But the film also works so well as a commentary on the silent repression Germany has suffered throughout the twentieth century, from the fear of stepping out of line with a contrary opinion in Nazi Germany, to the repression of individualist thought under Communist East Germany. “Never Look Away” are the last words Elisabeth speaks to Kurt – and it’s what fuels his eventual move towards Art that comments on reality with its blurred reproductions of personal snapshots and images (see Gerard Richter’s art). 

Von Donnersmarck uses art as a neat commentary for these ideas by showing how, in each era of Germany, the comments and views of art reflect each other. The film opens with the young Kurt and Elisabeth taking a tour around a Nazi “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Dresden, which suggests the likes of Picasso and Dali are either insane, moral degenerates, perverts or all three for their failure to create art that properly reflects nature. Later at the East German art school, the same artists are denounced again for failing to carry a proper and correct social message in their work. The tables are turned in the free Germany of the 1960s, where Modern exhibitionist art is all the rage, and paint and canvas is so passe as to be almost vulgar. Three different political spectrums, three very different dictates from society about what constitutes art.


How’s a man to find himself, and his personal expression as an artist, in the middle of this? Kurt is a gifted painter and drawer, but in every era his work is moved towards what is expected of him. As a boy in Germany he hides his impressionist sketches. In East Germany he becomes a famous painter of socialist images and murals. In the art college he tries to shift his style into the experimental alleyways of his peers – work that his professor (played with a neat mixture of pretension and earnestness by Oliver Masucci) recognises his not his true voice. It takes putting his own spin on images and memories of the past – of careful reproductions than subtly blurred to reflect our own imperfect memories (a visual trick von Donnersmarck prepares us for throughout the film with Barnett watching things move in and out of focus as they happen before him) works perfectly.

The film throws together this mix of art and German history with a thick streak of melodrama, which should be ridiculous but basically seems to work. Contrivance and coincidence bring together the fates of Barnett and Professor Seeband, the man responsible for the death of his aunt, and bounds their lives together forever. It’s a narrative development that could make you groan, but somehow the film gets away with it. It probably mostly works because Sebastian Koch is excellent as Seebold, even if the man is so base, selfish, lacking in shame and principle and coldly, uncaringly ruthless that he feels at time almost like a cartoon. No deed of greed and bastardy is beneath him, and the score frequently underlines his villiany with a series of unsubtle cues. 


But it works because Koch’s Seebold is also a marvellous commentary on the flexibility of so many in Germany. Seamlessly he turns himself from proud SS sterilisation and termination doctor, into proud East German Socialist leader and finally into centre-piece of West German society as a leading surgeon. Just as art is bent and shifted, so Seebold represents how people will allow their lives and principles to adapt and shift with all the rest. It’s worth a bit of melodrama and some plot twists that lean on the unbelievable (and are based far less on reality than most of Richter’s life). 

But the sections that focus on Barnet/Richter are just as fine, and von Donnersmarck brings energy, excitement and joy to the act of art creation in the way few other film makers have done. Tom Schilling continues his excellent run of roles, as a passionate free-thinker, yearning to have the chance to find his own voice and Paula Beer is just as good as his wife, whose artistic soul is just as strong, even if she does get a (albeit moving) can-I-have-babies plotline. The relationship between these two is striking for its loving affection and genuine warmth. And it gives the film a real heart.

Never Look Away isn’t perfect, but in its marvellous expression of the joys of artistic creation and the way that art is bent and used for the needs of government and society, it has a lot to say. With excellent performances across the board – Schilling, Koch and Beer are fabulous – it is also a fascinating commentary on the schizophrenic nature of Germany itself throughout much of the twentieth century. Melodramatic and obvious at times – and even I will say overlong at nearly three hours – a thudding mix at times of points made with too much force, it’s also a marvellous exploration of art and artists. Von Donnersmarck is back.

Monday, 23 September 2019

Scum (1979)

Ray Winstone finds prison life a tough proposition in Scum


Director: Alan Clarke
Cast: Ray Winstone (Carlin), Mick Ford (Archer), Julian Firth (Davis), John Blundell (Banks), Phil Daniels (Richards), Alan Igborn (Meakin), Alrick Riley (Angel), Patrick Murray (Dougan), Peter Howell (Governor), John Judd (Mr Sands), Philip Jackson (Mr Greaves), John Grillo (Mr Goodyear), Bill Dean (Mr Duke)

In 1977 Alan Clarke’s searing condemnation of the borstal system in the UK, Scum, was shot as a BBC Play for Today. Outraged at its content, pressure in the press led to the film being banned. But that didn’t change what an electric bit of work it was – and when talk turned to creating a film version, having a filmed version of the script already in existence that could be used as a pitch tool was invaluable. So was born the film version of Scum, with much of the same cast, a higher budget (although still tiny by comparison to other films) and a chance for Clarke to bring his uncompromisingly harsh vision to the big screen.

Three young boys arrive at a borstal: Davis (Julian Firth) is a sensitive youngster who ran away from his previous borstal, Angel (Alrick Riley) a black kid who suffers the systemic racism at every level of the system and Carlin (Ray Winstone) a hard man with a dangerous reputation, who punched a warden at his last borstal. On arrival, the three are identified as requiring being “broken” by staff: Davis is bullied, Angel abused and Carlin is placed at the mercy of the wing’s “Daddy” Banks (John Blundell), suffering beatings with the authorities turning a blind eye. The entire system is rotten to the core and, while Carlin eventually rises up to take over the position of “Daddy”, it changes little in a young offender’s prison rife with racism, sadism, violence, abuse and rape. 

Scum is almost unbelievably grim and pessimistic for this system of incarceration, finding nothing to redeem or excuse the system across its entire running time. The borstal is a wintery hell on Earth, with justice and sympathy nowhere to be seen. While the system claims to be helping its inmates (aged from early teens to early twenties) to find new skills and purpose in life, its real function seems to be trying to beat discipline and subservience into its inmates by all means necessary. While the Governor (a silkly patrician Peter Howell) may talk faith, duty and country he oversees a system where the wardens ruthlessly beat the inmates, encourage them to ‘discipline’ each other, turn a blind eye to violence and abuse, encourage an atmosphere of racial loathing and generally show no concern or interest in any boy’s problem that can’t be solved without punching them in the mouth.

It’s a world Carlin is dropped into, and he knows it well. Played by Ray Winstone with a chippy anger that never seems that far from bursting to the surface, Carlin might want at first to keep his head down but quickly accepts the only way to survive in this dog-eat-dog world is to be the top dog. There will certainly be no justice from the wardens, who beat him on arrival as a trouble-maker, and set the Wing’s alphas on him to break his spirit. Casually beaten in the middle of the night, it’s the bruised Carlin who is sent to solitary confinement for fighting while his attackers go free. He is joined by Davis, framed for theft and Angel, for whom being black seems to be crime enough (walloped by a warden, and spilling food across his room, he is sent down for keeping his cell untidy).


What’s striking in this film though is that, as much as we are meant to think Carlin might be the hero, Clarke is smarter than that. He carefully watches Carlin – a tight-control on Winstone’s face that promises retributive violence is on the way – for almost forty minutes adjust in this system, before he takes matters into his hand. The film’s most famous sequence – shot in one dizzying tracking shot that captures the immediacy of Carlin’s putsch – sees Carlin beat Bank’s weasily sidekick Richards (Phil Daniels) with two snooker balls in a sock, before heading up to his dormitory toilet to beat Banks black-and-blue (and bloody), the cut finally coming to show us Carlin (from Banks POV) screaming at him “I’m the Daddy now”. It’s a masterclass of a sequence, electric in its execution and gives a moment of pleasing oomph (for all its extreme violence) as it shows Carlin finally getting a bit of justice.

Only Carlin’s institution as the Daddy brings largely only a change of figurehead rather than real change. Sure Carlin isn’t quite the bully Banks is, but he’s an unashamed racist, a violent thug, who ruthlessly takes over the money smuggling operation Banks was running (but taking a higher cut) and takes control of another wing by beating its “Daddy” (another black inmate) with an iron bar. Carlin is also quickly adopted by the wardens, just as Banks was, agreeing to maintain peace and control in the borstal in exchange for certain privileges like his own room. Carlin may at first seem to us the angel of retribution – but he’s really a ruthless survivor who is perfectly happy with the status quo so long as he on the top of it.

But then no one has any interest in improving things. The governor is only interested in the appearance of gentility. The wardens couldn’t care less about the rehabilitation of the inmates so long as they have a quiet life. The inmates drift through their life there, never questioning the violence around them. The matron is well-being, but hopelessly rules-bound, whose concern for the boy’s welfare never develops into seeing them as human beings. It’s a systemic failure.


There are other perspectives of course. Possibly the most fascinating character is Mick Ford (replacing David Threlfall in the original production) as Archer, a precociously intelligent inmate in his early twenties, possibly the only one who has read the rulebooks and enjoys running intellectual rings around the wardens. Causing trouble in his “own little way”, he claims to be a vegetarian (requiring a complex set of arrangements to be put in place to feed him separately) and also unable to wear leather boots (requiring his own special plastic boots to be located) and provokes the bible-bashing Governor with thoughts of converting to Islam and Sikhism. 

But he’s also a smart cookie, who recognises (in a fascinating conversation with veteran warder Dukes) that the entire system is a trap, both for the inmates and the wardens, imprisoning them in a system where criminal acts are endemic, the wardens are trapped and brutalised by the system as much as the prisoners and the whole system manifestly fails to do anything other than inoculate Darwinian violence into its inmates (Archer is of course promptly put on report for this cutting analysis). The scene – a key part of the film’s argument – is also a tribute to the skilful writing of Roy Minton, whose script bubbles with both quotable and sadly realistic dialogue.

Clarke’s entire film is the exploration of this violence and the mixture of hypocrisy and denial down to outward condonation and support it receives from the Governor down to the wardens. Any proper review of the conditions in the Borstal is impossible, as it would rock the boat and fly in the face of the positive message the Governor wishes to promote about his institution. Effort is put into putting the boys at loggerheads with each other (usually on racial grounds) as a divide and rule. The weak are happily left at the bottom of the rung, not least the tragic Davis, a sensitive boy (marvellously played by Julian Firth with a heartbreaking vulnerability) totally failed by everyone around him.

Clarke’s final act spins out of a disturbingly intense rape scene of a young inmate (an act witnessed with a sneer by sinister warden Sands, a repulsive John Judd) – the scene a mix of careful filming to show nothing too graphic, and heart-rendering intensity in its vulnerability and violence. The victim is totally ignored, leading to tragic consequences – another difficult to watch scene which hammers home both the cruel indifference of the warders and the helplessness of the victim. The eventual riot this is all leading too is, however, painfully futile: scapegoats are selected at random and beaten senseless, the status quo is reinforced by a bland platitude speech from the Governor. 

Directed with fire and passion by Alan Clarke, a virtuoso of realism and master of social conscious, Scum is a masterpiece of anger, of boiling resentment against systems that do not work and do not care that they do not work. Packed with astonishing performances and some sublime camera work and film-making skill, it’s a must-see.

The Birds (1963)

Tippi Hedron has a bad day at the birdcage in The Birds


Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Tippi Hedron (Melanie Daniels), Rod Taylor (Mitch Brenner), Jessica Tandy (Lydia Brenner), Suzanne Pleshette (Annie Hayworth), Veronica Cartwright (Cathy Brenner), Charles McGraw (Sebastian Sholes), Lonny Chapman (Deke Carter), Joe Mantell (Cynical Businessman)

Alfred Hitchcock is often seen as the master of technique, the doyen of suspense, the master of the shock twist. Perhaps it was his love of this sort of material that led him to this radical reworking of Daphne du Maurier’s short story The Birds. After all Hitch had already directed the greatest ever du Maurier adaptation (Rebecca), so working with du Maurier was hardly new and turning this English suspense story into a sort of post-apocalyptic, tension-filled plot-boiler was right up his street. The Birds is a master-class in the director’s craft, and a curiously empty experience with barely a human heart in sight.

Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedron), a slightly spoiled heiress, arrives in a small coastal town in California in order to play a practical trick on lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). Deciding to stay the night, she quickly realises that she has chosen the wrong weekend to get away as, while sparks grow between her and Rod, they also grow between humanity and the birds, as our feathered friends (enemies?) begin a series of escalating attacks on the population of the town that eventually lead to multiple deaths and destruction.

Hitchcock’s film is as masterclass in the slow-burn, deliberately the slowest film the director perhaps ever made. Hitchcock prided himself on his films in suspense being the awaiting of an event to happen. The bomb you know will go off on the bus. The plane circling Cary Grant that seems ripe to attack. The Birds takes this to the nth degree. The film’s very title all but tells you that the birds are going to attack, so Hitchcock takes it nice and slow, letting scenes play out with a breezy lack of pace, almost like a low-rent romantic comedy. But somehow this long unwinding of not a lot happening works well, because every scene somehow becomes a corkscrew as tension as every single bird in shot becomes suspicious. 

This atmosphere is increased by the wide open locations and remote locale the film is set in, with these all-American small town sites seeming to stretch on forever around the characters only serving to stress their isolation and vulnerability in the middle of all this deadly nature. Hitchcock also carefully stripped out all musical score from the film, instead providing a sound track of natural noise complemented by slightly exaggerated bird noise (created by use of a Trautonium, supervised by master composer Bernard Herrmann). The often makes the film eerily and unsettlingly quiet, with the soundtrack only punctured by the frequently (perhaps deliberately) mundane dialogue. Suddenly with this brilliant combination game, the entire film becomes a tense waiting game for the unleashing of avian attacks, every frame a tense waiting for the bang you all know is coming. It’s Hitchcock using every aspect of his reputation, and the film’s promise of violence, to create an overwhelming effect that is deeply unsettling no matter how many times you see the movie. 


Hitchcock also gives a slow build to the bird violence. Events escalate quickly, from the unsettling gathering of the birds in several places (most notably along telephone lines and outside a school playground) to subtle messages about chicken’s refusing food, to first Melanie and the other characters colliding with or being bitten by birds. It all builds to a grim reveal of a local farmer who has been attacked over-night, with Rod’s mother stumbling across the mutilated old man, Hitchcock’s camera delightedly cross cutting onto the man’s pecked out eyes. It’s the most grotesque shot of the film – and coming before we’ve seen our first mass bird attack, leaves us in no doubt as to the danger of these animals.

And when those bird effects come they have a real unsettling violence to them. In a blur of both real birds and super-imposed images (I will admit that the special effects of this film do now look a little dated, with the mixture of real, model and photo trickery birds rather jarring) the birds fly with an almost unimaginable aggression at the human beings. Flocks descend, pecking, biting and clawing, leaving human bodies maimed, blinded and bloodied. Crowds of school children are attacked while fleeing their school. A gas attendant is brutally set upon leading to a firey conflagration. Passers-by and those unable to get refuge are beaten to the ground under a flood of winged assailants.

The film changes tack in its final sequence into a tense series of sieges as Melanie, Rod and his family hole up in Rod’s house by the lake, barricading doors and windows as the birds peck relentlessly at doors and windows, slowly forcing their way in. Rooms that fall to the birds become whirlpools of deadly flying creatures, a tornado of wings and pecks that few can stand against. Hitchcock’s camera cuts rapidly from the flood of birds, to ever increasing pecks at hands and arms, to hands thrown up to protect eyes – a brilliant call back to the eye horror shown earlier in the film that immediately inspires. The birds attack in unpredictable waves, their attacks dying down at moments as the sit calmly and placidly only to expectantly burst back into violence.

It’s just a shame that Hitchcock’s film is so enamoured with its undeniable technique that it neglects to feature any heart or soul at all. The characters are a stock collection of forgettable tropes, most played by forgettable actors, or mute ciphers. The film almost deliberately throws together a truly trivial collection of stories and character motivations to pepper the centre (perhaps this bland self-interest is what pisses the birds off so much) of the film, that frankly are not that interesting. Rod Taylor is a solid but uninspiring performer, Jessica Tandy is saddled with a truly pathetically weak role. So many of the other characters such little impact that they barely warrant names. Rarely in Hitchcock films have the human characters felt so much like devices, square pegs in square holes, totally subservient to the Master’s whims. Put frankly, for all the tension of when the birds will turn, you’ll care very little for any of their victims. 


A lot of focus on the film has been on Tippi Hedron, in particular her accusations of ill-treatment (routed in frustrated sexual obsession) from Hitchcock. These stories – and Hitchcock’s subsequent description of her as little more than an attractive prop (a feeling he tended to have for lots of actors) – have drawn attention away from the fact that she is actually very effective in The Birds, and that her brightness and intelligence makes her the only person who feels real in the whole film. It makes it all the more sad that the final sequence renders her into a mute, shell-shocked victim – but Hedron’s promise (never fulfilled due to Hitchcock’s sabotage of her career) is clear here.

Hitchcock’s film finally ends on a truly nihilistic, Armageddon tinged ending that speaks volumes for the post-apocalyptic nuclear anxiety prevalent in the West in the 1960s. The birds rest, triumphant, over the chilling silence of the world as what remains of our heroes beat a retreat. It’s a chilling flourish in a film that is a stylist’s triumph but lacks any real heart. It’s a film that haunts the memory but it doesn’t win the heart. If Hitchcock really did hate actors and most people, this film makes a good case for arguing that’s a pretty honest insight.