The Baader Meinhof Complex
Stunningly shot and perfectly conceived, the best historical political thriller in recent years is director Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex, a film about the West German radical group, the RAF—Red Army Faction—who reigned from 1967–77. Inspired by cultural revolutions in Paris and Czechoslovakia they took the baton from American outfits like the Black Panthers and the Weathermen and raised the stakes by about a hundred. Unlike other great political films like Z, State of Siege, Bloody Sunday, Che, and even Munich, Edel, best known for his American film Last Exit to Brooklyn back in ’89, does not go with the traditional handheld docu-realism style but a slick look, with long dolly shots (ala Boogie Nights) and a smooth editing style. In this age of terrorism paranoia, here is a film like Battle of Algiers that tries to explain the motives behind the action, but not justify them or even glamorize them. These were true believers in the cause but also groovy party rebels who just didn’t want to be like their parents and broke from the longstanding rule of German conformity.
German counter-culture radicals of the ’60s and ’70s have been portrayed in both real life and fictional accounts in films a number of times before; most famously there was Volker Schlondorff's The Legend of Rita and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Third Generation. Schlondorff also directed with his then wife, Margarethe von Trotta, the classic The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, while Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night covered the Italian counterparts in the same period. And more recently the story of Uschi Obermaier, the ’70s German terrorist/supermodel, had her wild life made into a movie, Eight Miles High. And then there was Olivier Assayas’s epic Carlos about the international super criminal. So this is fertile ground that has been covered from many angles for the last 30-something years, but The Baader Meinhof Complex feels like the most authoritative, final statement on the subject, at least from the German side of history.
The Wild Child
"I wish that my pupil could have understood me at this moment. I would have told him that his bite filled my soul with joy."
—Dr. Itard reflects upon his discovery of the feral boy's sense of justice in Truffaut's 1970 film.
The Farewell is an account of the final days of the poet, playwright, and theater director, Bertolt Brecht (played by Josef Bierbichler). It recounts a single day of his vacation miles outside of Berlin where he prepared, alongside his reviser, wife, daughter, and mistresses, for the new theater season. The interests of everyone present clash on several matters, most importantly Brecht's health, which was in rapid decline. His wife Helene/Helli (Monica Bleibtreu) stands by as others dote on him. Many, including Kathe (Jeanette Hain), a young actress who seems to be his latest muse and mistress, take priority over his own wife and daughter, Barbara, in terms of attention. Also present on the estate for the vacation is Wolfgang Harich and his wife Isot. Harich is a political reformer who openly shares his wife with Brecht. To complete the picture is Elizabeth, his reviser, and Ruth, an old mistress past middle age who is now an alcoholic and an emotional wreck over the fact that Brecht no longer takes interest in her.
On the morning of their last day of vacation a Stasi officer comes calling and wishes to speak with Brecht's wife in private. He asks if the Harichs are present in their company, and once this has been confirmed, he informs Helli that by sundown they plan to arrest their friends for high treason, no doubt due to Wolfgang's radical activities. The officer asks that everyone on the estate clear out by six o’clock that evening and gives her a number to call and a signal to recite when it's safe for them to take action. He also asks her to not inform the Harichs of the arrest or their conversation, and in doing so, she will keep herself and Brecht out of danger.
“It’s not the fall that kills, but the way you land.”
—Hubert’s philosophical metaphor of falling is emotionally applied to survival in the projects in 1995’s La Haine.
As stated in the previous review of Sister My Sister, Murderous Maids is a biopic on the Papin sisters. I listed the flaws of the former, and surprisingly found few to no flaws in this production. Alluding to the various interpretations of the sisters' lives, this film is more complete due to the fact that it goes into their childhood and background as maids, beginning with the convent where they were raised and educated. There's a hefty age difference between the two, and Christine is shattered when her mother informs her that her father, who's away at war, raped their older sister Emilia, who later became a nun. When the young Christine, who is also very religious, expresses her desire to also be a nun, her mother revolts out of spite, telling the child she would be a servant like her.
While Lea (Julie-Marie Paramentier) was still in school the adult Christine (Sylvie Testud) slaved away in various households as her mother collected most of the earnings and found her new positions. When Lea became a teenager her mother put her to work as well, and Christine's protests to this were due to the fact that she wanted a better life for her and because Lea informed her that the men in the current house she worked at took certain liberties with her and their mother. When their mother informs them that she plans to find work for them in the same household, the two are very pleased. They learn how the place works and do a splendid job until the volatile Christine ruins it and they're back at square one. She's forced to split from her sister, who she has a sexual attachment to, and finds work alone in a wonderful estate with a fairly nice woman and her adult daughter.
Day for Night
"We meet, we work together, we love each other, and then...pfft...as soon as we grasp something, it's gone."
— The aging actress Severine’s (played by Italian starlet Valentia Cortese) astute lament on the intangible nature of filmmaking resounds the yearning romance of all art in Francois Truffaut’s 1973 film, Day for Night.
Elevator to the Gallows
Combining the splendid black and white photography of Henri Decaë, the magnetic force of Jeanne Moreau, and a superb jazz score by Miles Davis, Louis Malle’s directorial debut is incomparable in terms of mood and style.
The film was poorly received by critics but has since been deemed a masterpiece, both in terms of direction and pre-new wave modernity. The score by Miles Davis, accompanied with then unknown players and bop drummer Kenny Clarke, would fuel Davis to take on certain conventions within jazz—most notably, the kind heard through his album Kind of Blue that followed two years after the film’s release. Decaë’s work would also become prominent in the works of several new wave directors, specifically Truffaut and Chabrol. Perhaps the most interesting quality to the film is the fact that it is a rarity from Malle. It marks the first and only time that the director tried his hand at noir, or worked so tightly in the confines of a genre. As it goes with films like Riffifi and Le Cercle Rouge, the criminal aspects of it are somewhat downplayed by a wonderful cast and outstanding photography.
The last decades haven’t been that great for real-life political radicalism, but in the movies it’s been extraordinary: Baader Meinhof Complex, Munich, Che, the cartoonish Eight Miles High, and now, Olivier Assayas’s extraordinary bio Carlos (epic is an understatement). Not since the glory days of The Battle of Algiers, State Of Siege, and Z have political terror cells been so damn entertaining. Even more thanV for Vendetta, Carlos is one of the giddiest pro-terrorism flicks ever made. Originally made for French television, the five-hour-plus Carlos has been released in theaters at different lengths; but The Criterion Collection DVD includes the three episodes, at their original length, spread over three discs (with a fourth disc containing an excellent French documentary that helps to fill in the holes). Carlos is so dense with history and international period detail that seeing those above-mentioned films (which have a number of crossover characters and references in Carlos) definitely helps make the film easier to follow. But that’s not to say you have to be a history major to appreciate Carlos; it’s so riveting and Carlos, the character, is so fascinating that just committing to it proves amazingly rewarding.
In Episode One we meet Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, AKA Carlos (Edgar Ramirez), a young Venezuelan man who claims to be a Marxist committed to the anti-imperialism and pro-Palestinian causes (though not always pro Arab). We get no back story; the film opens with Carlos already established in political terrorist circles. He’s no modern day religious zealot; he seems to just be a fearless, hunky, suave playboy who is socially connected to every radical group from Europe to the Middle East. While seducing a woman he plays with his guns and has her orally pleasure a grenade while telling her “weapons are an extension of my body.” He smokes and drinks; at first the operatives above him treat him like a kid, but as his criminal star rises they begin to fear him. He’s a would-be assassin, with more than nine lives under his belt. But unlike The Jackal in The Day of the Jackal he’s not in it for the money; he’s clumsy and his plots are not as well planned out. Though Carlos and his comrades kill a lot of people in many countries they often get killed a lot themselves. Many women come and go throughout his life; some join his struggle, while others are just lovers. Episode One ends on a suspenseful note as Carlos and a makeshift little international militant group are preparing to attack OPEC headquarters in Vienna.
It’s not an overstatement to say that Jean-Luc Godard’s noiry, crime-romance Breathless (À bout de souffle) may be one of the most important films of a very important film era—a game changer. For the film critic turned filmmaker, Breathless Godard’s first feature and it helped to define an exciting new cinema movement that was brewing among young cinephiles in France now known as The French New Wave. With its hand-held photography, jump cutting, improvised script, and natural lighting, it carefully broke many rules of formal cinema. Inspired by American crime films, mostly the B-movies that that generation of the French critics came to appreciate long before their American counterparts, it romanticized the underworld, without the moral lessons of so many similar American movies. The film also gives a shout-out to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur, another film inspired by American Noirs. Playing the film’s lead, a small-time crook with a death wish, Breathless put actor Jean-Paul Belmondo on the map. His gripping and charismatic performance reeks of his influences, most notably Humphrey Bogart and Marlon Brando. Like so many filmmakers to come, from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino (who both cite Breathless as a major influence), Godard’s work, and Breathless in particular, was a tribute to the movies that came before that the director admired.
After Michael (Belmondo) steals a car and then shoots a cop, he finds himself on the run. Still always playing it cool, he hides out in Paris with an American girl, Patricia (Jean Seberg), a New York Herald Tribune street vendor. Like the best of French couples they smoke a lot of cigarettes, have sex, and talk philosophically about themselves. She is in love with him, but he is selfish and utterly self-obsessed, as he makes Bogart-like faces in a mirror always trying to perfect his gangster persona. She knows he’s bad news but maybe that’s what makes her even more devoted. She may be a naive waif, but she’s also college bound; she’s not a simpleton like Sissy Spacek in Badlands, she just wants a classic bad-boy lover. Her love and her own need to survive eventually lead her to rat him out to the cops. In a long famous death scene he is shot and killed before falling breathless.
Who Wants to Kill Jessie?
Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is an underrated gem from a Czech New Wave director that hardly anybody has heard of. It plays on the conventions of comic strips, the mystery of dreams, and communist efforts in Czechoslovakia—with mad scientists who represent brainwashing.
Ruzenka (Dana Medricka) and Jindrich (Jiri Sovak) are a married couple who are both scientists. Each is trying to come up with an invention that will lead them to a Nobel Prize, and both are fairly eccentric. Ruzenka is in the medical field and has found a formula that she's named “KR VI” that can take undesirable qualities about dreams and replace them with pleasant ones. Jindrich is an engineer trying to find a way to increase production in his otherwise incompetent firm.