Monday, February 27, 2006

The Nightmare Continues

Darwin's Nightmare

10_small.jpg

Due to popular demand, the Oscar-nominated documentary Darwin's Nightmare has been extended at the Northwest Film Forum. Screenings have been added for Saturday and Sunday, March 4th and 5th, at 12pm and 4:30pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine. For more information: www.nwfilmforum.org. General info: 206-329-2629. Showtimes: 206-267-5380.

The Nightmare Continues

Darwin's Nightmare

10_small.jpg

Due to popular demand, the Oscar-nominated documentary Darwin's Nightmare has been extended at the Northwest Film Forum. Screenings have been added for Saturday and Sunday, March 4th and 5th, at 12pm and 4:30pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine. For more information: www.nwfilmforum.org. General info: 206-329-2629. Showtimes: 206-267-5380.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Six Days in a Life

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days / Die Letzten Tage
(Marc Rothemund, Germany, 2005, 35mm, 117 mins.)

Sophie in her cell.














In the end of the movie "Downfall," we see Hitler's original secretary, Traudl Jünge.
Years after the war, in Munich, she passed by a sign with information about Sophie
Scholl. She learned that the day when she started to work as a secretary for Hitler
was exactly the same day Sophie Scholl was executed. So years after the war, she
understood that if you wanted to know what was happening, you could have known.
--Marc Rothemund to Salon (February 16, 2006)

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

A household name in Germany, Sophie Scholl is likely to be an unfamiliar one to many Americans. A member of the anti-Nazi organization The White Rose, the 21-year-old nursing student was arrested, interrogated, sentenced, and executed for high treason in 1943. Marc Rothemund's Oscar-nominated film pieces together the last six days of her life.

Although some critics have described Sophie Scholl as "cool" (Stephen Holden) and "clear-sighted" (Peter Bradshaw), this is somewhat misleading. The film isn't manipulative or heavy-handed, but such descriptions imply that it was shot cinema verité style or that it's devoid of tender moments (most of which occur between Sophie and her sympathetic cellmate, Else Gebel). Despite intensive research on the part of Rothemund and screenwriter Fred Breinersdorfer, Sophie Scholl is, unmistakably, a feature film and not a documentary.

The opening sequence, in which Sophie (the excellent Julia Jentsch, The Edukators) and her
brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs, also very good) distribute anti-war pamphlets at Munich Uni-
versity, for instance, moves like a thriller. The lighting is dramatic, the camera angles skew-
ed, the music (by Run Lola Run's Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil) suspenseful. It reminded me, coincidentally enough, of Steven Spielberg's Munich. And I mean that as a compliment. I got swept into the story right from the start. In a couple of instances, Sophie is also shot looking up towards the light. Granted, she literally has to look up to see the sky outside her cell, but the allusions to Joan of Arc are clear (and Sophie was a religious person).

There will be other moments of high drama, but the heart of the film is Sophie's intense
interrogation by Gestapo investigator Robert Mohr (the impressively ambiguous Alexander
Held; like Jentsch, a player in Oliver Hirschbiegel's magnificent Downfall). This section evokes Volker Schlöndorff's The Ninth Day. Also based on a true story, Schlöndorff's movie centers around the interrogation of dissident Luxembourg priest Henri Kremer by a Gestapo officer who fancies himself Kremer's theological equal. As with Scholl, Kremer refuses to sell out his compatriots. While he isn't sentenced to death, he is sent to Dachau (and fortunately, he survives). Both movies prove that talk can be just as compelling as action.

Ironically, I caught Claire Denis' The Intruder the day before Sophie Scholl--and my head is still spinning from the contrast. Stylistically, the two films couldn't be more different. While Denis' is built on imagery, Rothemund's is built on words (the opening sequence being a notable exception to the rule). It is, in fact, one of the "talkiest" pictures I've seen so far this year, but arguably, it needs to be. Scholl is, after all, charged with speaking out against the Third Reich. Words are her weapon; the only means at her disposal to fight against a system in which she has no voice. That she was silenced so quickly indicates how powerful those words were and how desperately the Nazi Party hoped to deter further dissent.

By making Sophie, Hans, and the other White Rose members into martyrs, however--a total of six were executed--the Nazis only hastened their own demise. Incidentally, one of the film's other moments of high drama is the trial itself, although I did wonder if André Hennicke as Judge Roland Freisler wasn't taking things too far. The wildly gesticulating Freisler is one frightening spectacle, but then cinema is littered with the antics of raving Nazi loonies. As it turns out, this crazed depiction was based on fact. The press notes quote Leo Samberger, "one of the few independent witnesses" at the trial, on the judge: "Raging, screaming, howling to the point where his voice broke, leaping up explosively again and again."

Samberger, a junior lawyer at the time, says that such behavior "did not intimidate or break the defendants." He adds, "Calm, composed, and brave were their answers to the sometimes shameless questions put to them." Two years later, after pronouncing "death sentences on about 2,295 individuals," Freisler "was killed by schrapnel in an air raid on Berlin." Considering that Hans and three other defendants fought for their country on the Eastern Front, while Freisler--as Hans bravely points out--did not, his death holds a special irony.

The real-life Hans, Sophie, and Christoph.
Sophie Scholl is the first film to look so closely at the life of this remarkable young woman, but not the first to examine the resistance movement to which she belonged (Sophie was one of the few female members of The White Rose). Rothemund's effort was preceded by Michael Verhoeven's Die Weiße Rose and Percy Adlon's Fünf Letzte Tage. I'm not familiar with either, although it's worth noting that both were produced before the crucial minutes of the Gestapo interrogations were made available in 1990. Hence, this sensitive, yet unsentimentalized take on the subject seems likely to stand as the definitive one. Sophie Scholl works as history, it works as drama and it is, in the end, as wrenchingly sad as it is uncomfortably relevant.

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days premieres at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival on Sunday, March 12, at MOHAI. It opens at the Varsity on March 17. The SJFF will also be featuring the highly regarded Hungarian drama Fateless and the amiable Israeli comedy Metallic Blues, which premiered at SIFF '05. For more information, please click here. Images from Wikipedia.

Friday, February 17, 2006

From Perch to Pop Art: Part Two

Two New Docs at the Northwest Film Forum

Who Gets to Call It Art?
(Peter Rosen, USA, 2006, 35mm, 80 min.)

Who-Gets-To-Call

The answer is: Henry Geldzahler. There are those who document their times and those who participate in them. Curator Geldzahler (1935-1994) did both. Peter Rosen's lively portrait is sketchy on biographical detail, but vivid in depicting Geldzahler's passion--the promotion of modern art--and the dazzling practitioners he championed, like Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenberg, and Roy Lichtenstein.

Geldzahler, an impish chap with ever-present cigar clamped in mouth, is best known for the massive 1969 exhibit, "New York Art and Sculpture, 1940-1970," he mounted for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, Rosen avoids the obvious documentary approach--constructing his narrative around one defining event. Geldzahler's entire life was about encouraging the cause of modern art, so why not look at all the ways in which he pursued his goal? This keeps things moving along at a brisk clip and prevents the last act from coming across as anti-climactic.

On the other hand, by speeding through Geldzahler's childhood, Rosen never makes it clear why this product of a conservative, upper class upbringing--Belgian diamond merchants--would throw his lot in with some of the 20th century's most eccentric individuals (like Robert Rauschenberg, who comes across as the wildest of a wild era's wild cards). However, as many commentators note, he had complete confidence in himself. All feel it was justified, but then Rosen only spoke to the artists Geldzahler embraced, like Larry Poons and Frank Stella (in the story of his life, let's hope John Turturro get to take the lead). What about those he did not? They don't get to have their say, but then they may not have wanted one.

Louise Nevelson and Helen Frankenthaler aside--Geldzahler didn't have a lot of love for the ladies--he got the word out about the art he loved, but how did this non-artist become a work of art himself? Easy: he didn't hobnob with the critics and fellow curators of his day, but with the artists themselves. He was particularly close to Andy Warhol and David Hockney, and both would create pieces that revolved around him. They weren't alone. Not only did George Segal make a plaster mold of the guy, but Geldzahler participated in some of Oldenberg's hippie dippy "happenings." Didn't this represent a conflict of interest? Rosen doesn't say, but he implies that this chumminess fed some of the resentment engendered by the Met show.

The director concludes by looking at Geldzahler's lower-profile post-Met career, which continued as it had begun. In the 1980s, he moved on to newer artists, like Francesco Clemente, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring. He may have gotten older, but his mind remained as open as ever. Who Gets to Call It Art? is an entertaining look at an important period in America's aesthetic life. As biography, it falls short (and the first act is a little baggy), but as a snapshot of a colorful scene, it gets the job done. Granted, Rosen doesn't look at the politics of the 1960s and 1970s, but I'm getting tired of the usual line-up of images: JFK, MLK, Woodstock, etc. Instead, he takes an insular look at an insular world, filled with the art, the artists, and even the music of the times--from the Monks to Meredith Monk.

*****

Co-presented by the Henry Art Gallery, Who Gets to Call it Art? plays Mar. 3 - 9, Fri. - Thurs, at 7:15 and 9pm. Henry curator Elizabeth Brown will introduce the first screening. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. For more information: www.nwfilmforum.org. General info: 206-329-2629. Show times: 206-267-5380.

From Perch to Pop Art: Part Two

Two New Docs at the Northwest Film Forum

Who Gets to Call It Art?
(Peter Rosen, USA, 2006, 35mm, 80 min.)

Who-Gets-To-Call-It-Art.article

The answer is: Henry Geldzahler. There are those who document their times and those who participate in them. Curator Geldzahler (1935-1994) did both. Peter Rosen's lively portrait is sketchy on biographical detail, but vivid in depicting Geldzahler's passion--the promotion of modern art--and the dazzling practitioners he championed, like Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenberg, and Roy Lichtenstein.

Geldzahler, an impish chap with ever-present cigar clamped in mouth, is best known for the massive 1969 exhibit, "New York Art and Sculpture, 1940-1970," he mounted for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, Rosen avoids the obvious documentary approach--constructing his narrative around one defining event. Geldzahler's entire life was about encouraging the cause of modern art, so why not look at all the ways in which he pursued his goal? This keeps things moving along at a brisk clip and prevents the last act from coming across as anti-climactic.

On the other hand, by speeding through Geldzahler's childhood, Rosen never makes it clear why this product of a conservative, upper class upbringing--Belgian diamond merchants--would throw his lot in with some of the 20th century's most eccentric individuals (like Robert Rauschenberg, who comes across as the wildest of a wild era's wild cards). However, as many commentators note, he had complete confidence in himself. All feel it was justified, but then Rosen only spoke to the artists Geldzahler embraced, like Larry Poons and Frank Stella (in the story of his life, let's hope John Turturro get to take the lead). What about those he did not? They don't get to have their say, but then they may not have wanted one.

Louise Nevelson and Helen Frankenthaler aside--Geldzahler didn't have a lot of love for the ladies--he got the word out about the art he loved, but how did this non-artist become a work of art himself? Easy: he didn't hobnob with the critics and fellow curators of his day, but with the artists themselves. He was particularly close to Andy Warhol and David Hockney, and both would create pieces that revolved around him. They weren't alone. Not only did George Segal make a plaster mold of the guy, but Geldzahler participated in some of Oldenberg's hippie dippy "happenings." Didn't this represent a conflict of interest? Rosen doesn't say, but he implies that this chumminess fed some of the resentment engendered by the Met show.

The director concludes by looking at Geldzahler's lower-profile post-Met career, which continued as it had begun. In the 1980s, he moved on to newer artists, like Francesco Clemente, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring. He may have gotten older, but his mind remained as open as ever. Who Gets to Call It Art? is an entertaining look at an important period in America's aesthetic life. As biography, it falls short (and the first act is a little baggy), but as a snapshot of a colorful scene, it gets the job done. Granted, Rosen doesn't look at the politics of the 1960s and 1970s, but I'm getting tired of the usual line-up of images: JFK, MLK, Woodstock, etc. Instead, he takes an insular look at an insular world, filled with the art, the artists, and even the music of the times--from the Monks to Meredith Monk.

*****

Co-presented by the Henry Art Gallery, Who Gets to Call it Art? plays Mar. 3 - 9, Fri. -- Thurs, at 7:15 and 9pm. Henry curator Elizabeth Brown will introduce the first screening. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. For more information: www.nwfilmforum.org. General info: 206-329-2629. Show times: 206-267-5380.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

From Perch to Pop Art: Part One

Two New Docs at the Northwest Film Forum

Darwin's Nightmare
(Hubert Sauper, Austria/Belgium/France, 2004, BetaSP, 107min)

11_small.jpg

The most visceral film-going experience I've had so far this year, Oscar-nominated documentary Darwin's Nightmare couldn't be more aptly titled. It begins with a harried control tower employee swatting at wasps and ends with a pleasant-faced local watching planes depart from the same outer-Mwanza airport. The ex-Soviet aircraft, which is bound for Europe, is filled with Nile perch. The fish, which is not native to Tanzania, has been providing jobs for the indigenous population, along with Russians, Ukrainians, and others for forty decades now. So what's so nightmarish about that? And what does any of this have to do with Charles Darwin?

Well, no one seems to know who introduced the perch to Lake Victoria, but the predator has decimated the other fish in the area and, although flourishing at the moment, the voracious creature is a cannibal that seems likely to decimate its own species at some point. It gets worse. First of all, the processed perch is too expensive for the average Tanzanian--who earns a dollar a day--to purchase, and yet the country is in the midst of widespread famine. Consequently, citizens either do without or feast on the remnants (the heads and stripped carcasses).

Then there's the processing of the remnants, which provides additional jobs, but only under the most atrocious conditions. The carcasses are crawling with maggots and the ammonia used in the processing makes the workers sick. Again-"t gets worse. Medical care in this northern region is subpar to non-existent. Several (surprisingly well spoken) subjects are missing limbs and many have AIDS. The women who aren't involved in processing work as prostitutes--a profession that proves to be even more hazardous for one poor unfortunate--and their primary clientele appears to be the foreign pilots. The children, who are left unattended, smoke, sniff homemade glue, and fight over the few scraps of food available.

But wait-"t gets even worse. Turns out those Russian planes are also exporting goods into Tanzania. I won't say what, but they're the last thing this country needs. Darwin's Nightmare has been described as "agitprop" by some observers. They have a point. Austrian writer/director Hubert Sauper aims to get your blood boiling, but unlike Michael Moore, his images tell more of the story than his words (there's no narration and minimal music). His tale is a powerful one, but it's hard not to feel overwhelmed by all this misery, especially since the film offers no remedy, nor even a glimmer of hope. Then again, maybe that's the point: In Tanzania, the fittest have been allowed to survive for so long that there is no solution.

*****

Darwin's Nightmare plays Feb. 24 - Mar. 2, Fri. - Thurs. at 7 and 9 pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave, between Pike and Pine. For more information: www.nwfilmforum.org. General info: 206-329-2629. Showtimes: 206-267-5380.

From Perch to Pop Art: Part One

Two New Docs at the Northwest Film Forum

Darwin's Nightmare
(Hubert Sauper, Austria/Belgium/France, 2004, BetaSP, 107min)

11_small.jpg

The most visceral film-going experience I've had so far this year, Oscar-nominated documentary Darwin's Nightmare couldn't be more aptly titled. It begins with a harried control tower employee swatting at wasps and ends with a pleasant-faced local watching planes depart from the same outer-Mwanza airport. The ex-Soviet aircraft, which is bound for Europe, is filled with Nile perch. The fish, which is not native to Tanzania, has been providing jobs for the indigenous population, along with Russians, Ukrainians, and others for forty decades now. So what's so nightmarish about that? And what does any of this have to do with Charles Darwin?

Well, no one seems to know who introduced the perch to Lake Victoria, but the predator has decimated the other fish in the area and, although flourishing at the moment, the voracious creature is a cannibal that seems likely to decimate its own species at some point. It gets worse. First of all, the processed perch is too expensive for the average Tanzanian--who earns a dollar a day--to purchase, and yet the country is in the midst of widespread famine. Consequently, citizens either do without or feast on the remnants (the heads and stripped carcasses).

Then there's the processing of the remnants, which provides additional jobs, but only under the most atrocious conditions. The carcasses are crawling with maggots and the ammonia used in the processing makes the workers sick. Again--it gets worse. Medical care in this northern region is subpar to non-existent. Several (surprisingly well spoken) subjects are missing limbs and many have AIDS. The women who aren't involved in processing work as prostitutes--a profession that proves to be even more hazardous for one poor unfortunate--and their primary clientele appears to be the foreign pilots. The children, who are left unattended, smoke, sniff homemade glue, and fight over the few scraps of food available.

But wait--it gets even worse. Turns out those Russian planes are also exporting goods into Tanzania. I won't say what, but they're the last thing this country needs. Darwin's Nightmare has been described as "agitprop" by some observers. They have a point. Austrian writer/director Hubert Sauper aims to get your blood boiling, but unlike Michael Moore, his images tell more of the story than his words (there's no narration and minimal music). His tale is a powerful one, but it's hard not to feel overwhelmed by all this misery, especially since the film offers no remedy, nor even a glimmer of hope. Then again, maybe that's the point: In Tanzania, the fittest have been allowed to survive for so long that there is no solution.

*****

Darwin's Nightmare plays Feb. 24 -- Mar. 2, Fri. -- Thurs. at 7 and 9 pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave, between Pike and Pine. For more information: www.nwfilmforum.org. General info: 206-329-2629. Showtimes: 206-267-5380.