The International Lens: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (dir by Werner Herzog)

Once upon a time, in 19th century Germany, there was a young man who was known as Kaspar Hauser.

No one was really sure what Kaspar’s original name was or where he even came from.  He was found, in 1828, wandering the streets of Nuremberg.  He carried an unsigned letter with him, one that said that he was 16 yeas old, from the Bavarian border, and that he had been raised by someone who taught him how to read and write and about “the Christian religion.”  The note also stated that the boy had never been allowed to step out of the house before being taken and abandoned in Nuremberg.  He carried a second letter, which was supposedly from his mother and stated that the boy’s name was Kaspar and that his father had been in the Cavalry.  Some people who saw the two letters felt that they had both been written in the same handwriting, leading to speculation that Kaspar may written the letters himself.

When he was first found, it was believed that Kaspar could barely speak.  He knew the word for “Horses!” and he often repeated the phrase, “My father was cavalryman!”  As time progressed, Kaspar’s vocabulary expanded and he said that his earliest memories were of being locked away in a room.  His meals were brought to him by someone who always wore a mask.  Some people felt that Kaspar may have been the kidnapped child of a nobleman or an unacknowledged member of the royal family.  Others felt that he was a charlatan and that he was faking the entire thing.  Briefly, Kaspar was a celebrity as people from around the world wondered who he was and where he had come from.

In 1828, he was found with a cut on his forehead.  He said that he was attacked by a mysterious stranger who announced, before cutting him, “You have to die!”  The stranger was never found and there was even some speculation that Hauser had cut himself.  In 1830, he was found with another wound on his forehead, this time claiming that he had been grazed by a bullet after a gun accidentally went off.  Again, some felt that Hauser was intentionally injuring himself for the attention while others felt that the people who had held him prisoner were again trying to kill him.

Hauser was found wounded one last time, in 1833.  This time, he was found with a deep cut to his chest.  He claimed that he had, again, been attacked by a mysterious stranger.  A note was found where Hauser claimed that he had been attacked, a cryptic letter that claimed that the attacker was the same man who had previously cut Hauser’s head.  By this point, there was a lot more skepticism about Hauser and his stories and it was generally assumed that he had stabbed himself and injured himself worse than he ha intended.  It’s said that when Hauser died of his wounds, his last words were, “I didn’t do it to myself.”  Assuming that Hauser was born when the note from his mother claimed that he was, Kaspar Hauser was 21 when he died.

The mystery of Kaspar Hauser is an intriguing one and it’s one that’s explored in Werner Herzog’s 1974 film, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.  The film sticks fairly closely to the known facts of Hauser’s life.  For instance, Herzog does not show us the final attack on Hauser.  Instead, he just has Hauser tell us about the attack, leaving it to us to decide whether or not Kaspar is telling the truth.  At the same time, the film starts with footage of Kaspar being held in a small room.  We watch as a dark-clad stranger carries Hauser to Nuremberg and, after showing him how to walk, then abandons him on the streets of the city.  Herzog accepts Hauser’s claim that he was raised in a locked room but he leaves it to us to decide why Hauser was in that room and why he was eventually abandoned in Nuremberg.

Kaspar Hauser is played by an actor named Bruno S.  Bruno S. was a nonprofessional and he was 42 year-old when he played the 16 year-old Hauser.  And yet, Bruno S. has such an unconventional screen presence that he seems perfect for the role.  With his wide-eyed stare and his tentative movements, Bruno S. is poignantly believable as someone who is discovering the world for the same time.  As the film progresses, Hauser develops a sharp and cynical wit, all of which Bruno S. captures perfectly.

Hauser is another Herzog protagonist who, because he’s on the outside of regular society, has developed the ability to see the world in a way that no one else can.  While he lays dying, Hauser has visions of nomadic Berbers in the Sahara Desert.  Why?  Why not?  That’s the enigma of Kaspar Hauser.  As in all of his best films, Herzog embraces the questions without trying to manufacture answers and the end result is a haunting film about one of Germany’s most enduring historical mysteries.

The International Lens: Gomorrah (dir by Matteo Garrone)

In the suburbs of Naples, a group of middle aged men are gunned down while relaxing at a tanning salon.  The 2008 Italian film, Gomorrah, opens with that shocking act of violence and, though we don’t ever learn much about the men who have just been killed or even why they were killed, we spend the next 137 minutes watching the ramifications of those murders.

The poorest neighborhoods of Naples have been plunged into violence as two rival clans of the Camorra go to war.  (The Camorra is like the Mafia but even more violent.)  We’re never quite sure who has gone to war with who or who is winning the war.  For the most part, we’re usually not even sure who is allied with who.  The details of the war are not as important as the people who are caught up in it.

For instance, there’s a 13 year-old boy named Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese) who desperately wants to join one the clan-affiliated gangs.  Toto has a job delivering groceries and, after he proves that he can be trusted by delivering a package of misplaced drugs to the gang, he allowed to join.  Of course, he also has to help his new friends murder one of the people to whom he delivers groceries.

And then there’s Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), who looks like  quiet accountant but who has one of the most dangerous jobs around.  He’s the guy who has to deliver money to the families of all of the clan members who have been arrested or killed.  Having that money is dangerous, even for someone who doesn’t appear to have a violent bone in his body.  One thing that Gomorrah quickly establishes is that, when it comes to the Camorra, there is no honor.  Everything that we’ve been led to believe about organized crime having any sort of code is a lie.  Everyone is a target, even the ones who appear to just be timid bankers.

Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo)) is a tailor who takes a job training Chinese garment workers.  Because the Chinese workers are directly competing with the Camorra-owned factories, Pasquale soon discovers that his life is in danger.  He even has to hide in the trunk of a car so that he can be safely smuggled into work each night.  It’s a dangerous world but Pasquale’s story does conclude with one of the film’s best and most darkly humorous moments.

Franco (Toni Servillo) works in waste management, hauling away people’s garbage and then secretly dumping it where it won’t be discovered until long after it’s poisoned the soil.  Franco’s business may be funded by criminals and he may be destroying the Earth but Franco still very proud of himself.  He’s the type of hard worker who built Italy’s economy.  Without him, Italy would be dependent upon other countries for its survival.  Franco is the type of man who makes Italy and therefore Europe great.

And finally, there’s Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), two teenage morons who love Scarface and who think that they’re destined to become master criminals just like Tony Montana.  Hoping to impress the clans, they commit a series of progressively violent crimes.  Even as the Camorra plots a violent retribution for the two of them, the two teens are too busy playing on the beach, stripping down to their underwear and firing off rifles, to understand.  It’s easy to dismiss these two as just being idiots who are in over their heads but what else is there for them?  They live in one of the poorest neighborhoods in all of Europe,  There are no economic opportunities.  There’s no chance for any sort of advancement.  They’re trapped, prisoners of both their birth and their circumstances.  They can either try to be gangsters or they can just be passive observers.  Either way, there’s a good chance they’ll get caught in the crossfire.  When the choice is between being a victim and victimizer, is it such a shock that the two of them would want to be the latter?

Gomorrah is a gritty crime film, shot in a documentary-style with a largely nonprofessional cast and featuring scenes of sudden and shocking violence.  Unlike most mafia movies (though the Camorra is not the same as the Mafia that we know here in the United States), Gomorrah is barely concerned with the mobsters.  Instead, its focus is on those who have to live around them, the indirect victims of their nonstop vendettas.  The film understands that its audience is probably full of people like Marco and Ciro, people who can quote Scarface but who have no understanding of the actual damage that has been done by organized crime.  Gomorrah sets out to correct the record and it does a pretty good job of it.

Gomorrah is a harrowing but effective film, one that shows how poverty breeds crime and crime, for the most part, just breeds more poverty.  To its credit, the film doesn’t offer up any easy solutions.  Instead, it just asks us to acknowledge the reality of what’s happening all around.

The International Lens: The Vanishing (dir by George Sluizer)

A man named Rex (Gene Bervoets) is driving through France with his girlfriend, Saskia (Johanna ter Steege).  They’re from the Netherlands and they’re taking their first vacation together.  Saskia tells Rex about a strange recurring dream that she’s been having, one where she’s floating through space and she’s on the verge of colliding with someone else.  When Rex fails to take her dream seriously, they have a brief argument.  It’s the type of argument that every couple has had at one time or another.  At the time, it’s serious.  Afterwards, it’s something that you laugh about.

When they pull over at a rest stop, Saskia goes into a gas station.  She says that she’s only going inside for a few minutes, just so she can pick up two drinks.  She should be right back.

She never returns.  Rex searches the entire rest area but no one can remember seeing where she might have gone off to.  It’s as if she’s vanished off the face of the Earth.

This is how the 1988 Dutch film, The Vanishing, begins.  The opening is creepy enough.  What’s amazing is that things only get creepier as the story progresses.

Three years pass by.  Saskia is never found.  Despite the fact that Rex is now dating Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus) and makes it a point to only refer to Saskia as having been a “friend,” he remains obsessed with her disappearance.  He continues, for instance, to pay to put up missing posters of her.

Walking through the city, a French chemistry professor named Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) and a friend of his see one of the posters.  Raymond’s friend says that Rex should just give up.  If Saskia hasn’t been found yet, she’ll never be found.  Raymond asks his friend how he would feel if it had been someone close to him who had disappeared.  Raymond sympathizes with Rex and wonders who could have abducted Saskia.

Of course, Raymond already knows the answer.  As we see in flashback, Raymond is the one who kidnapped Saskia.  Raymond Leomorne is a friendly, calm, and always reasonable family man.  Once, while he and his family were enjoying a weekend afteroon, he even dove into a river to save a girl from drowning.  Raymond, however, has always know that there was something different about him.  When he was a child, he once jumped off a balcony just for the experience.  Everyone assumed that he had fallen off the balcony because, after all, only a crazy person would actually jump.  And Raymond has always been as normal as normal can be….

There’s been a lot of films made about the banality of evil but none capture the concept quite as perfectly as The Vanishing.  Even after he reveals the truth about what he’s done, Raymond remains a remarkably reasonable, friendly, and mild fellow.  He discusses committing murder in the same tone that someone would use while discussing doing yard work.  If anything, the obsessive Rex seems more outwardly unstable than Raymond.  While Raymond cheerfully acknowledges that he is a sociopath, Rex insists that he’s not still in love with Saskia.  Of course, everyone in the film knows better.  Rex remains obsessed with not only Saskia but also the manner of her death.  He says that he’s living in the present but he spends his time continually trying to recreate the past.

When Raymond starts sending Rex postcards in which he offers to show him, step-by-step, what happened to Saskia, Rex agrees to meet with him.  The majority of the film is simply Rex and Raymond talking to each other while driving through the night.  What makes these deceptively low-key scenes especially disturbing is that Raymond doesn’t carry a gun or any other weapon.  Rex could probably subdue him at any minute and take him to the police.  Even after Rex has his answers, he continues to listen to Raymond.  He continues to passively allow Raymond to control every minute of their story, all so he can try to recreate the day the Saskia vanished and hopefully find a different ending to their trip.  It all leads to a shocking final twist and one of the most haunting finales in cinematic history.

The Vanishing is a horror film that’s effective specifically because it doesn’t takes place in a fantasy world or feature any imaginary monsters.  It takes place in the real world and its monster is all too real.  It plays out with the power of a nightmare.  Much like Saskia’s dream about being in the egg, The Vanishing moves like an unstoppable force of dread.  It’s a frightening film but it’s also not one that you can look away from.

The International Lens: The American Friend (dir by Wim Wenders)

The 1977 German film, The American Friend, tells the story of two men.

Tom Ripley (played by Dennis Hopper) is an American.  He’s also a very wealthy criminal.  He wears a cowboy hat almost everywhere he goes and always tends to be a little bit too forceful when he talks to people.  Because he’s wealthy, he is tolerated by high society but everyone seems to view him with a bit of suspicion.  And perhaps they should because Ripley actually has a pretty good scheme going.  Working with an artist named Derwatt (director Nicholas Ray), Ripley sells forged paintings.  He goes to auctions and bids on these paintings, artificially driving up the price.  When Ripley isn’t selling forged paintings, he’s traveling around the world and speaking into his tape recorder.  He’s an existential cowboy, one who doesn’t appear to have any morals but who is still capable of exclaiming, “I’m confused!” with real anguish in his voice.

Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz) is a German art restorer and picture framer who has a beautiful wife, two children, and a lovely shop.  He also has leukemia and is obsessed not only with his impending death but also his fear that he’s going to end his life without really doing anything memorable.  When Jonathan meets Ripley at an art auction, he refuses to shake Ripley’s hand because he knows about Ripley’s shady reputation.  Ripley is offended but slightly forgiving when he learns, from a mutual acquaintance, that Jonathan has been sick.

Back at his mansion, Ripley receives a message from a French gangster named Minot (Gerard Blain).  Minot wants Ripley to murder a rival gangster for him.  Ripley, however, tells Minot that he should contact Jonathan and offer him the contract.  Ripley then spreads a rumor that Jonathan’s illness has gotten worse and that both his doctor and his family are keeping the truth from him.  Now believing that he’s on the verge of dying and desperate to make some money so that his family won’t be helpless after he’s gone, Jonathan is far more open to accepting Minot’s unexpected offer to become a hired gun.

To his shock, Jonathan is able to carry out the murder.  However, Minot is not content to just have Jonathan kill one man.  Minot is concerned about the activities of an American gangster (played by director Sam Fuller) and he expects Jonathan to keep killing for him.  Meanwhile, Ripley, feeling a bit conflicted over his part in Jonathan’s new career, take it upon himself to help Jonathan out in his latest assignment.  And so, on odd friendship is born….

The American Friend is based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel Ripley’s Game (which, itself, is a sequel to oft-filmed The Talented Mr. Ripley).  In Highsmith’s novels, Ripley was always portrayed as being suave, well-spoken, and never suffering from self-doubt.  Dennis Hopper plays Ripley as a cowboy who appears to be in the throes of an existential crisis.  It’s quite the opposite of the literary Ripley but it works perfectly in the world created by The American Friend.  At times, there’s something almost child-like about Hopper’s Ripley.  As played by Hopper, Ripley is an unintentional force of destruction, one who targets Jonathan on an impulse and then, just as impulsively, decides to help him out.  It’s one of Hopper’s best and most multi-layered performances.

Dennis Hopper is equally matched by the great Bruno Ganz, who plays Jonathan as being a gentle soul who is as shocked as anyone to discover that he’s capable of murder.  Though he is morally offended by Ripley’s reputation, he still can’t help but try to help Ripley out when Ripley unexpectedly shows up at his shop.  Even towards the end of the film, Jonathan seems to be so happy to finally be doing something unexpected with his life that his joy is almost infectious.  You’re happy for him, even though you know things probably won’t turn out well for him.

As directed by Wim Wenders, The American Friend is a perfect mix of existential angst and film noir homage.  While there’s undoubtedly a political subtext to the film — one gets the feeling that Ripley’s destructive friendship with Jonathan is meant to represent the way that America views Europe — The American Friend works best as an homage to the glorious B-movies of the 40s and 50s.  (It’s probably not a coincidence that both Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller have prominent supporting roles.)  There’s a sequence on a train that’s the equal to Hitchcock at his best and the story’s conclusion will stick with you long after the film ends.

Sadly, most of the principle members of the cast are no longer with us.  All of them are at their best in The American Friend and Wim Wenders gives them all a terrific showcase in which to display their talent.  The American Friend is definitely a film worth tracking down.

The International Lens: Il Divo (dir by Paolo Sorrentino)

Earlier tonight, as I watched the 2008 Italian film, Il Divo, it occurred to me that political corruption really is an international language.

The film is heavily stylized biopic of Giulio Andreotti.  Andreotti (who died five years after the release of this film) is nearly unknown figure in the United States but, in Italy, he spent several decades as a member of the country’s political elite.  He was a controversial figure, a man who served several terms as prime minister and was later appointed senator for life but who was also accused of being politically corrupt and affiliated with some of the worst elements of the Mafia.  People who threatened to investigate Andreotti or who could have contributed to his downfall had a habit of ending up dead.  No sooner has Il Divo begun then we’re treated to a lengthy montage of Andreotti’s associates getting killed in various ways.  Some are gunned down.  One is found hanging underneath a bridge.  One is in an exploding car.  The film also opens with a title card that informs us that, over the course of Andreotti’s long career, he was rumored to be one of the leading members of the P2, a masonic lodge that counted among its members some of the most powerful men in Italy.  P2 is one of those organizations that conspiracy theorists love to obsess upon.

Directed by Paolo Sorrentino, Il Divo is an Italian film that deals with the life of a prominent Italian political figure and, needless to say, it was made for an Italian audience.  For an American viewer like me, it was often impossible not to get confused as I tried to keep up with who was working with who and who had just been killed.  In short, this film was made to be viewed by people who already know who Guilo Andreotti was and who are familiar with the details of his long career.  It was not made for someone like me who is still struggling to wrap her mind around the fact that Italy has both a prime minister and a president.

But, in the end, it really didn’t matter if I occasionally struggled to follow every twist and turn of Andreotti’s career.  Il Divo may technically by a biopic of Giulio Andreotti but, on a larger scale, it’s about how power corrupts and the banality of evil.  Those are universal themes and you certainly do not have to be any particular nationality to be familiar with the fact that people who dedicate their lives to accumulating political power often turn out to be, at the very least, willing to cut some ethical corners.  I may not have always understood every detail of Il Divo‘s story but I did understand exactly what the film was ultimately about.

As played by Toni Servillo, Andreotti does not come across as being  particularly charismatic politician.  With his hunched back and his bat-like ears, Andreotti almost seems like a caricature of a corrupt leader.  In the film, one immediately sees that Andreotti hasn’t held onto his power because he’s particularly loved by the people.  Instead, he’s held onto power by being smarter than those who would try to defeat him.  No matter how determined his enemies may be, Andreotti is always just a little bit more ruthless.  Andreotti succeeds because he’s willing to do what he has to do to succeed and he’s willing to ally himself with people who have a stake in his continued success.  While the film never comes out and says that Andreotti was personally responsible for ordering the deaths of any of his enemies, it does suggest that he purposefully surrounded himself with men who would do anything to keep Andreotti in power, if just to protect their own fiefdoms of corruption.

There’s an early scene in Il Divo where Andreotti’s allies all arrives for a meeting with the prime minister.  Most of them are politicians.  One of them is a cardinal.  Another is simply identified as being a “businessman.”  They pull up in their expensive cars and then we watch as they walk across the screen in slow motion, arrogantly confident in the fact that they’re above any and all legal or ethical considerations.  They’re all wealthy men and they all seem to understand the importance of keeping Andreotti happy.  Carlo Buccirosso plays Paolo Cirino Pomicino, who was one of Andreotti’s chief allies.  Buccirosso plays Pomincino as being glibly hyperactive, a cheerfully corrupt ball of energy who seems to be having all of the fun that Andreotti denies himself.  Because Andreotti denies himself an interest in anything other than wielding and holding power, he is invulnerable to attack and prosecution but sometimes it’s hard not to wonder if he would have rather have been Pomincino, dancing at parties and sliding across tiled floors.

Indeed, Andreotti begins and ends Il Divo as an enigma.  How deeply involved is he in the murders occurring around him?  Is he ordering them or is he just turning a blind eye?  What makes Andeotti tick?  By the end of the film, his main motivation seems to be bitterness.  Death may be inevitable but he’s not going to go until everyone else goes first.  That is a motivation that many politicians across the world probably share.  Corruption is universal.

The International Lens: Throne of Blood (dir by Akira Kurosawa)

In feudal-era Japan, two great Samurai commanders, Miki (Akira Kubo) and Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) stumble upon a mysterious spirit (Chieko Naniwa) who tells them both their futures.  Though her prophecies are cryptic, it appears that she is predicting that, some day, Washizu will become the “Lord of the Spider Web’s Castle” and that he will eventually be succeeded by Miki’s son.  When Washizu later returns to his wife, Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), he tells her about the prophecy.  The ambitious Asaji encourages to make the prophecy come true by murdering the local lord, Lord Tsuzaki (Hiroshi Tachikawa)….

Does this sound familiar?  The 1957 Japanese film, Throne of Blood, is a version of Macbeth, with the action moved from Scotland to Japan and the three witches replaced by one spirit.  It’s an enthralling film, though it probably does help to already be familiar with the plot of Macbeth before watching the film.  Director Akira Kurosawa keeps the action moving at a quick pace and he doesn’t always stop to carefully explain everyone’s motivations.  That’s not a complaint, by the way.  Kurosawa emphasizes the confusion of living in a world of constant war and constant scheming.  As envisioned by both Shakespeare and Kurosawa, the worlds of Macbeth and Thrones of Blood are worlds where violence is a part of life and the only thing certain is that everyone is going to die eventually.  To try to deny fate is to be destroyed by it.

The world of Throne of Blood seems to be covered in a constant fog.  Perhaps it’s the fog of war or maybe it’s the fog of an uncertain future but, for me, the defining image of Throne of Blood is one of armored and bloody men emerging from a thick mist.  The viewer is never sure who might be hiding in the mist and, even more importantly for both those watching the movie and those existing inside of it, it’s impossible to see what might be waiting down the road.  The only person who can see through the mist is the Spirit but, just as in Shakespeare’s play, people tend to only hear what they want to hear when the Spirit speaks.  In the world of Throne of Blood, even those who have eyes have been rendered blind.

It’s a world where you can change the present but you can never escape the past.  Asaji finds herself vainly trying to wash the blood off of her hands.  Washizu finds himself haunted by the ghost of the man that he killed.  Even while Washizu shouts at a ghost that only he can see, it’s obvious that those around him are already plotting the best way to get him out of the way.  There is no real loyalty in Throne of Blood and it all leads to death and more death.  It’s hard to say that anyone really achieves any sort of victory in Throne of Blood.  That’s just not the way the world works.

Throne of Blood is basically a filmed nightmare, one that takes place in a world that’s drenched with blood and duplicity.  Toshiro Mifune gives another great performance in the role Washizu, though the film is ultimately stolen by Isuza Yamada as Washizu’s wife, who pushes her husband to murder and then finds herself driven to insanity by his actions.  Throne of Blood is both a superior Shakespeare adaptation and a great Kurosawa film.

The International Lens: The Experiment (dir by Oliver Hirschbiegel)

The 2001 German film, Das Experiment, is a film that’s probably more relevant today than when it was first released.

The film deals with a social experiment.  For a payment of 4,000 marks, volunteers are separated into two groups.  One group will be prisoners and they will spend several days in a makeshift prison that’s been constructed in the basement of a lab.  The other group will serve as guards.  Though the “guards” have been told that they are not allowed to physically harm any of the “prisoners,” they are still under strict orders to maintain order in the prison.  While the two groups play their roles, they’ll be observed by Prof. Thon (Edgar Selge) and his assistant, Dr. Grimm (Andrea Sawatzki).

If this premise sounds familiar, that’s because it’s based on something that actually happened in the United States in 1971.  At Stanford University, a group of students were split into prisoners and guards, much as in The Experiment.  In real life (and, in the film), both groups of students quickly adapted to their roles.  In real life, the experiment was canceled after it became apparent that the guards were abusing the prisoners.  In the film, the experiment continues even after it becomes obvious that things are getting out-of-hand.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is often cited as an example of both how quickly power can corrupt otherwise normal human beings and how, psychologically, people have a habit of assuming the habits of whatever group to which they’ve been assigned.  It’s often seen as proof of how easily people can fall into an authoritarian mindset.  That’s certainly what happens in The Experiment, in which the guards quickly go from being a bunch of fun-loving dudes (one of them is apparently an amateur Elvis impersonator) to being a bunch of power-mad sadists who justify their actions by saying that they have to maintain order no matter what.  Even when ordered by Dr. Grimm to end the experiment, the guards assume that her objections are just a scripted part of the experiment and they instead escalate their behavior.

The main character in The Experiment is Tarek Fahd (Moritz Bleibtreu ), a freelance journalist who also works as a taxi driver.  Tarek agrees to take part in the experiment because he wants to write an article about the experience and make some extra money.  Tarek is assigned to be a prisoner and given a new name: #77.  What Tarek doesn’t know is that Prof. Thon specifically selected him because Thon feels that Tarek’s rebellious nature will lead to a conflict with Berus (Justus von Dohnányi ), the most severe of all the guards.  It turns out that Thon is more correct than even he realizes.  The participants in the experiment may start out joking and enjoying themselves but it doesn’t last.  While Tarek seeks refuge in his fantasies and his memories of making love to the enigmatic Dora (Maren Eggert), the guards are thinking of new ways to psychologically abuse him. Perhaps not surprisingly, it all leads to torture, rape, and eventually murder.

The Experiment is an effective look at how quickly people can be seduced by their own power, one that is all the more disturbing for the fact that it’s taking place in Germany, a country full of people who should know where an authoritarian mindset leads.  The first time I watched the film was in 2010 and it was difficult not to associate what happens to Tarek to what was going on in the war on terror.  At the time, the film seemed heavy-handed but crudely powerful.  Watching it last night, while under lockdown, the film felt downright prophetic.  Watching the guards slowly go mad, it was hard not to question whether or not that’s what we have to look forward to in the future as more and more people take it upon themselves to police whether or not their neighbors are standing 6 feet apart from each other.  If we’ve learned anything over the past two months, it’s that more people fantasize about living under an authoritarian state than are willing to admit.

The Experiment was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel.  It was his directorial debut.  Three years after making The Experiment, Hirschbiegel would lunch a thousand memes by directing Downfall, a film about the final days of Hitler.  If you want understand why Hitler lost the war, watch Downfall.  If you want to understand how Hitler came to power in the first place, watch The Experiment.

The International Lens: Past Life (dir by Avi Nesher)

First released in 2016, Past Life is an Israeli film about two sisters, their father, and their efforts to understand and reconcile with the past.

The year is 1977 and Sephi Milch (Joy Reiger) is determined to become a renowned classical music composer.  While she has the talent and the drive, she’s also a young woman trying to find success in a field that has always been male-dominated.  As a woman, she is expected to just sing and leave the composing for the men.  One of her condescending teachers even smirks about how he “allows” her to take a composition class, even though everyone knows that her cause is hopeless.

As a singer, she and her class are invited to perform in Berlin.  She goes to Germany, despite the objections of her father, Baruch Milch (Doron Tavory), a Polish Holocaust survivor.  Following her performance, Sephi attends a reception.  While her best friend admires the handsome, tuxedo-wearing men standing around them, Sephi point out that, just 40 years ago, all of those men would have been wearing swastika armbands and giving each other the Nazi salute.  Sephi approached by a woman who appears to be slightly older than her father.  The woman says that she recognized Sephi’s last name.  She asks if Sephi is the daughter of Baruch Milch.  When Sephi says that she is, the woman tells Sephi that Baruch Milch is a murderer.

Back in Israel, Sephi tells her sister, Nana (Nelly Tagar), about what happened.  While Sephi wants to put the matter behind her, Nana is intrigued.  Nana is a journalist who works for the type of underground newspaper where the walls are decorated with pictures of Lenin.  Nana is as disorganized as Sephi is driven.  Whereas Sephi keeps her emotions under control, Nana always seems to be shouting at someone and it’s rare that she’s seen without a cigarette.  In fact, it turns out that the main thing that Nana and Sephi have in common is that they both have very mixed feelings about their father.

Baruch, we learn, was hardly the perfect father.  He put constant pressure on his daughters when they were growing up and was seen as being a fearsome and temperamental figure.  While Baruch’s disciplinary style led to Sephi being determined to succeed, it also led to Nana becoming bitter with her father.  Nana goes as far as to describe him as being abusive and she speculates that he very well could have murdered someone when he was younger.  (She points out that Baruch used to perform illegal abortions as proof that their father is not a squeamish man.)  As Sephi and Nana discuss it, they realize that they really don’t know much about their father’s early life in Poland or what he did to survive the Holocaust.  It’s something that, until now, Baruch has never discussed withe either of them.

Even when their father finally gives them an explanation, Nana suspects that he’s lying.  Meanwhile, Sephi’s attempts to move on are complicated when she meets and falls in love with the son of the woman who accused her father of being a murderer….

Past Life is a frequently enthralling film, one that is all the more powerful because it’s based on a true story.  It’s a film that not only inspires us to wonder about how much we truly know about the people who are the closest to us but it’s also one that forces us to consider the different ways that people deal with trauma.  Every character in the film is, in one way or another, dealing with the past.  Some do it through anger and some do it through denial.  Baruch’s story becomes almost a Rorschach test.  The two sisters each interpret it in their own way and each has their own reaction, one that is based not only on what Baruch says but also on their own unique relationship with him.  The film also works as an examination of sisterhood.  Nelly Tagar and Joy Reiger are instantly believable as sisters, capturing both the love and the annoyance that comes from their closeness.

Past Life is available on Prime so watch it the next time you want to be challenged.

The International Lens: Breathless (dir by Jean-Luc Godard)

The 1960 French film, Breathless, tells the story two people, a French criminal named Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and an American student named Patricia (Jean Seberg).

Michel is a criminal but it’s hard not to like him.  Some of that is due to the fact that he’s played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, a charmingly off-center actor whose confidence and refusal to pretend to be anything other than what he was made him appealing even if he was not exactly handsome.  The other reason why it’s easy to like Michel is because, no matter how many crimes he commits, you get the feeling that he’s just playing a role.  He dresses like he belongs in a 30s gangster movie and a lot of his attitude has obviously been borrowed from Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney.  Even the way he smokes a cigarette feels like an affectation.  He’s a kid, playing dress-up.  One almost gets the feeling that he knows he’s a character in a movie and he’s going out of his way to give the audience what they expect.

When we first see Michel, he’s stealing a car.  He drives around the French countryside.  He dismissively observes two hitchhikers.  A few times, he appears to speak directly to the audience.  Is he musing out loud or is he acknowledging that there’s a film camera in the passenger’s seat?  It’s hard to say.  When Michel gets pulled over by a cop, Michel shoots him.  Or does he?  The scene is edited in such a way that it’s hard to say for sure.  Maybe the cameraman shot the cop.  Maybe director Jean-Luc Godard shot the cop.  Not that it matters.  Michel is the one who is now wanted for murder.

With the authorities now determined to catch him and his face in all of the newspapers, Michel flees to Paris.  That’s where his girlfriend, Patricia, lives.  Patricia is an American student who aspires to be a journalist.  She sells copies of the New York Herald Tribune while walking around Paris.  Despite her journalistic ambitions, Patricia does not know that her boyfriend is wanted for murder.  Then again, boyfriend might not be the right word.  That would suggest more of a commitment than either one shows much interest in maintaining.

Michel hides out at Patricia’s apartment and, at one point, Patricia tells Michel that she might be pregnant with his baby.  Michel promptly blames her for not being “careful” and we’re never quite sure if Patricia is telling the truth or not.  While Michel hides out from the police and tries to figure out how to get enough money to flee to Italy, he and Patricia discuss …. things.  (It is a French film, after all.  It’s also a Godard film and, even if this film does feature Godard at his least pretentious, there’s still no way you’re going to get through a Godard film without at least a little conversation about the meaning of life.)  Michel is resigned to the idea of living in the moment and seems to be somewhat death obsessed.  Patricia remains optimistic and looks forward to the future.  Michel complains that Americans always make heroes out of the wrong Frenchmen.

Do Michel and Patricia love each other?  Who knows?  By the end of the film, one of them has betrayed the other and we’re not quite sure why.  One is dead and the other seems oddly ambivalent and rather confused about the whole thing.

One of the seminal works of the French new wave, Breathless was the directorial debut of Jean-Luc Godard, who was working from a story treatment that was originally written by Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol.  When it was first released, Breathless reportedly stunned audience by using techniques — like frequent jump cuts, location shooting, and the use of a handheld camera — that are now so familiar that we take them for granted.  That said, even if Godard’s techniques are no longer shocking, Breathless remains an exciting film to watch.  It’s not just the Michel and Patricia are frequently breathless.  One also gets the feeling that Godard was breathless behind the camera, trying to keep up with the story that he was telling.  This is a film that, much like it’s lead characters, never stops moving.  Indeed, a huge reason why the film’s finale remains powerful is because it’s the first time that anyone in the film truly seems to be still.  The viewer has gotten so used to the film’s frenetic energy that it’s a shock when it all comes to an end.

It’s been written that there are two eras of cinema — pre-Breathless and post-Breathless.  I don’t know if that’s true but it is impossible to watch Breathless and not see what a huge influence it’s had on every crime film that has followed.  Every film about lovers-on-the-run probably owes at least a minor debt to Breathless.  It’s one of those films that you simply have to see, both because of it’s historic importance and also just because it’s a damn good movie.  It’s a film that’s in love with cinema and, by the time things come to a close, you’ll be in love with it too.

The International Lens: Aguirre, The Wrath of God (dir by Werner Herzog)

Take a moment to picture this: Klaus Kinski, drifting by on a raft with a bunch of monkeys.

There’s a lot of memorable scenes in Werner Herzog’s 1972 film, Aguirre, The Wrath of God.  However, for me, this will always be the film where Klaus Kinski ends up on a raft with a bunch of monkeys.  It feels like an appropriate fate for Aguirre, the Spanish conquistador and proto-fascist who Kinski plays in this film.  After spending 90 minutes listening to Augirre rant and rave about how he’s destined to conquer South America and how he will always be known as “the wrath of God,” it’s easy to look forward to him being reduced to being a somewhat pathetic figure, commanding a raft full of monkeys.

And yet, what’s odd, is that Aguirre never quite become as ludicrous a figure as you’re expecting him too.  Even though he’s obviously been driven mad and the Amazon rain forest is closing in on him, there’s nothing desperate about Aguirre.  He still believes in himself.  He still believes in his destiny.  He still believes that every decision that he’s made has been the right one.  It’ll take more than a bunch of monkeys to defeat Aguirre!

Filmed on location in South America, Aguirre, The Wrath of God claims to be based on a true story.  We’re told that the film was adapted from a journal that was kept by a 16th century priest named Gaspar de Carvajal.  And while it is true that a Dominican missionary named Carvajal did publish several accounts of his journeys to the New World and while the film itself is full of people who share their names with actual historical figures (Pizarro, Pedro de Ursua, and Lope de Aguirre, being just three examples), the film’s story is itself fictional, though plausible.  This is one of those stories that may not have happened but the viewer can’t help but feel that maybe it should have.

The film deals with an expedition of Spanish conquistadors making their way through South America, searching for the fabled country of El Dorado.  The conquistadors, whio are first seen awkwardly climbing down a huge mountain in their full armor while dragging along cannons and treasure chests, are led by Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés).  Pizarro orders 40 members of the expedition to scout ahead by taking a raft down the Amazon River.  Pizarro places Ursua (Ruy Guerra) in charge of the scouting expedition while naming Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) as second-in-command.  The hope is that the scouting expedition will return in one week with news of what’s ahead.  Of course, it doesn’t work out that way.

Aguirre is Klaus Kinski’s signature role.  Herzog, who knew Kinski when the latter was a young actor renting a room in Herzog’s family’s apartment, specifically wrote the role with Kinski in mind.  Aguirre would be the first of several legendary collaborations between Herzog and Kinski.  In Kinski, Herzog found the perfect actor to embody his belief that chaos was the determining factor of the universe.  And, in Herzog, Kinski found one of the few directors who truly knew how to harness his manic acting style.  They were a perfect match and, of course, they often hated each other.  During the filming of Aguirre, Herzog and Kinski reportedly argued so frequently over how Aguirre should be portrayed that Kinski threatened to leave the jungle at one point.  Herzog responded by saying that, if Kinski tried to leave, Herzog would first shoot him and then himself.  It was not the last time that Herzog would threaten to kill Kinski.  In fact, after Kinski’s death, Herzog made My Best Fiend, an entire documentary about their difficult but often worthwhile collaboration.

Kinski reportedly wanted to play Aguirre as a ranting madman while Herzog wanted a subtler interpretation.  Judging from the end results, they agreed to meet somewhere in the middle.  From the first minute we see him, it’s obvious that Aguirre holds everyone and everything around him in contempt.  He hates the other members of the expedition.  He despises the jungle that surrounds them and the river that he’s soon be floating down.  Even when he’s dealing with his own teenage daughter (Cecilia Rivera), he never smiles or shows anything resembling affection.  He glares at the world with distrustful eyes.  And yet, everyone follows him because he seems to be the only member of the expedition who is not intimidated by the river or the jungle.  He promises his followers that they will be kings and that they will be rich and he says it with such authority that it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone to ask how he can be so sure.  Even when it starts to become apparent that Aguirre is losing his sanity, he’s too intimidating a figure for anyone to try to stop.  When one member of the group starts to complain about Aguirre’s leadership, Aguirre chops off his head.  (The head continues to talk for a few seconds before falling silent.)  As the film progresses, Aguirre grows progressively more and more unhinged.  By the end of the film, he’s come to stand-in for fanatics through history.  Every dictator, the film seems to be saying, started out as an Aguirre.

In fact, the only things that’s not intimidated by Aguirre is the jungle that is continually threaten to swallow up the expedition.  In typical Herzog fashion, the jungle is both lushly beautiful and also home to all sorts of unseen threats.  As more than a few people learn as they float along the river, stopping to admire the jungle is a good way to get hit by an arrow.  Amazingly, no matter how many times the expedition is attacked by the potent combination of nature and angry natives, Aguirre never seems to get a scratch.  It may be that, in the end, only the insane can survive in a world with no rules beyond random destruction.

Aguirre was Herzog’s first big hit and it remains perhaps his best-known film.  It’s certainly features some of Herzog’s best work as a director and Klaus Kinski’s best performance as an actor.  In the end, you’ll never forget Aguirre and the monkeys.