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13/02/2007

Breathless 5

Reality without cynicism: Andre Techine's "The Witnesses" (Competition)

It's the mid-80s. Manu is 20, and bursts in on the circle of friends like a young and innocent beast of prey. Sarah bangs away at her blood-red Olivetti from the first scene on, struggling with her writer's block. Her husband Mehdi, an ambitious vice-squad inspector, feels she is neglecting their baby and neglects her in turn. Manu is introduced to the group by Adrien, an elegant and lonely homosexual doctor who has fallen desperately in love with him.

The story gives equal weight to each character, all of whom bare their breasts to Manu about their wishes, fears and secrets. Manu is like a catalyst, always in the centre if not necessarily in the lead. He has a Platonic friendship with Adrien, then gets into in an affair with Mehdi. Mehdi had been heterosexual up to then and is confused about his emotions. He compensates by treating Sarah with increasing brutality, until she leaves him to work on her novel at her mother's. Over time Manu contracts Aids, one of the first cases in France. Adrien dedicates himself researching this little-known sickness, and his life takes on new meaning. Once a beast of prey, Manu is now a victim. With his demise, the hard and fast roles in the group become fluid.

Yet the story is dramatic, and Andre Techine leads his characters through it with a steady hand, maintaining a delicate balance and giving preference to no one. All receive equal treatment and must wage their battles on their own. Techine is a master of mitigation. He leaves out neither the sex scenes between Manu and Mehdi nor the deteriorating state of Manu's body. Yet he maintains a harmony which, although at times threatens to drift off into the bare elegance of distanced gestures, always manages to retain its balance in the overtired face of Emanuelle Beart or the fatally ill Manu, who now spends his time singing childhood rhymes. Many stories are told in these two hours, but none is hard done by. And where "Philadelphia" focusses on the new and frightening contagion and its associated stigmatisation, here Aids is not the subject of the film. One of the characters dies, the others try to go on living. For Techine, neither has the upper hand.

When Adrien's new lover appears in Sarah and Mehdi's summer house, as Manu did before him, the traces of the preceding winter can still be seen on the protagonists' faces. Yet Techine knows his characters will survive, and that's just what he wants. And the audience has no problem believing this grand humanist. Manu, too, goes on living, as Sarah has made his story into a book. Nothing comes to an end, it's just different. Techine saves his film – and himself – from pathos, and we are thankful for his sense of reality without cynicism.

Christoph Mayerl

"The Witnesses." Director: Andre Techine. With Michel Blanc, Emmanuelle Beart, Sami Bouajila, Julie Depardieu, Johan Libereau, Constance Dolle. France 2006, 115 Minutes (Competition).



A gesture: Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" (Competition out of competition)

"Letters from Iwo Jima" is the second part of a conceptually unusual diptych about the battle for the Japanese island Iwo Jima, which certainly did not decide the Second World War but in the collective memory of the USA it was an important stepping stone on the path to triumph. Joe Rosenthal's photo of the raising of the flag on Suribachi mountain is an icon of war photography (here a website showing the image in context). The lead-up to this image and the reverse transformation from myth to history was Clint Eastwood's motivation for "Flags of Our Fathers," which is still showing in German cinemas.

"Letters From Iwo Jima" aims for a radical shift in perspective. Here the story of the battle for Iwo Jima is told from the Japanese point of view. US soldiers are shown as the hopelessly superior force. They are barely individualised, and on one occasion, only then to be shown as desperadoes, gunning down POWs. All the work to create individuals takes place on the Japanese side. Our sympathies are distributed equally throughout the ranks.

General Tadamishi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) proves to be a stroke of luck for the production of Western viewer sympathy, having lived in California and remained in love with the American world. At the end, defeated in battle, he kills himself with a bullet from a revolver that he was given in the USA. The man who accompanies him to his death is another of the film's protagonists, Private Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) a man wholly foreign to heroics, who wants to desert but can't bring himself to. The strategy is clear: conservative Clint and his scriptwriter Iris Yamashita dissolve the army into individuals and leave politics outside. Dying and fighting for the fatherland is shown, even when militarily senseless and politically objectionable, as a matter of honour. But all desire to understand runs dry when confronted with the strategically dysfunctional Japanese code of honour which rates suicide over retreat.

"Letters from Iwo Jima" is in the context of Hollywood certainly an unusual film, but in many respects half-baked. The images are monochromatically faded, the darker tones dominate because most of the action takes place in caves and tunnels. And the chiaroscuro flickering shadows with the well-placed light-source backgrounds are too beautifully photographed to be consistent. The script sways indecisively between character study and war film. As a result, the characters are stranded half way on the path to becoming individuals, and the monotony of waiting and retreat is continually interrupted by action sequences and skirmishes. In the aesthetic no-man's land somewhere between mainstream and art house, "Letters from Iwo Jima" is, for the one noble gesture in which it culminates, at almost two and a half hours, definitely too long.

Ekkehard Knörer

"Letters from Iwo Jima". Direction: Clint Eastwood. Starring Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Rio Kase. USA 2006, 141 mins (Competition out of competion)



Angela Schanelec: "Afternoon" (Forum)


The first shot is a static image: a view from the stage of a theatre onto the auditorium. In the foreground – and on the stage – lies a dog. A woman named Irene (Angela Schanelec), approaches it, pets it. This seems to be a rehearsal, a few people occupy seats in the auditorium, they are somewhat restless. It remains unclear whether the events being presented to us are indeed part of a rehearsal, or whether, assuming a rehearsal is indeed underway, they are merely occurring along its margins. Angela Schanelec's film "Afternoon" never returns to this initial image, never returns to the theatre. Only later will a figure from the same scene - the one involving the woman and the dog - describe it as something she saw in the theatre. The film quits the theatre for good, and all subsequent events transpire either at a lakeside villa in Potsdam or in the streets of Berlin. And yet it becomes evident at the latest during the credits that this first scene has established a space of play that is derived from the theatre. "Afternoon" is an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull" - albeit a free one.

Certainly, the freedom present in "Afternoon" - that is to say, the liberties taken by director Angela Schanelec with Anton Chekhov's text and with his protagonists - does not mean freedom for the actors who move within her takes. Nor for the motions of the camera as it moves around her characters. In the first shot, the camera gazes out onto an auditorium where no audience is present. A similar image occurs later, a static shot taken from inside the villa which serves as the action's principal setting. We look out onto the empty lake on whose shores the villa stands. Seated on the terrace, barely visible, obscured by the window frames and sills, is Irene, and next to her, her friend, the author Max (Mark Waschke).

We reconise these takes - which always avoid providing information within the frames they provide - from Schanelec's last film "Marseille", a film that also emerges from the theatre. They are present again in "Afternoon", but dominant here, however, is a different approach to capturing figures in images. It is as though this time, the director (and her marvellous cameraman Reinhold Vorschneider) were in search of a more intimate visual idiom. Here, space condenses around bodies, or more precisely, around faces, which are seen speaking in close ups. This spatial condensation is, in the first act, a strategy of avoidance. It is not always evident who is present in the room, albeit outside of the image, and in many cases, there is no immediate indication of who is being addressed by the actor on whose face the camera is so insistently fixed. In the second act, however, this fixation becomes an mode of concentration, of undivided attention, almost of love. To be sure, these characters are trapped within themselves, are far more preoccupied with themselves than with others. With this intent gaze, nonetheless, the camera gives these individuals, egocentric as they may be, all possible credit. It follows them as they remove themselves from the world, deflecting themselves back onto themselves. The film displays its solidarity with them, and moreover at the most basic formal level, in that it shows that they are alone with themselves, and in that it makes palpable the fact that this being-alone-with-oneself represents a loss - the loss of a shared world.

This loss cannot be compensated for by the searching and finding of words. Two of the characters are writers – just as in Chekov. Much here resembles the literary source, and yet "Afternoon" is very much its own work, an adaptation that does not simply take liberties, but which instead, through great strength of effort, elaborates something independent. There are Chekov dialogues which sit awkwardly in the mouths of these characters, who so obviously live in different times than the Russian protagonists of the play. This allows them, and Agnes (Miriam Horwitz) in particular, to almost struggle with their lines. It is like an encounter with a foreign sense of self, a discovery of things which the character does not necessarily understand merely because she is speaking them. The camera persists in a protracted profile close-up of Agnes' face as she declaims her grand words. Not calmly, but instead like someone who is herself astonished that she has summoned the courage to speak them at all. And yet not doubting. Precisely here is the radical solidarity of this film, which offers the individuals which it captures in images a kind of temporary refuge. (Incidentally, the reverse is sometimes the case, as mere banalities are unloaded – and not even with significance, but simply with weight. Everything weighs.)

"Afternoon" is no dialogical film - whether between the protagonists or between the film and its audience. No one here is in search of an audience. It is possible to feel repelled by this almost obsessive sense of selfhood (and by characters with whose auto-fixations the film shows such solidarity), but the uncompromising character of this film consists in the way in which it remains unconcerned about this. It is not a question of social cohesion. In "Afternoon", conversations are not about communication, but instead about the individual's solitary struggle with words, a struggle that is fought out in the presence of others. Not once is a dialogue presented conventionally via shot and counter-shot. Instead, the camera pans with infinite slowness from face to face, moves in and freezes, moves in and freezes. The images - on the lakeside, in the sunlight, during summertime in Potsdam - are often extraordinarily clear and bright, but from beginning to end, the protagonists are weighed down by the weight of the world. It is not a question of a narrative, nor even of process, but instead of a succession of circumstances. The social fabric decays before our eyes and ears, yet this process is never illuminated. This too is the case with Chekov, but missing here is his tendency toward cynicism. In the end, that changes nothing: one escapes, another commits suicide, while the rest have been dead from the very beginning. "Afternoon" is a film about the unendurable heaviness of existence itself.

Ekkehard Knörer

"Nachmittag" / "Afternoon". Director: Angela Schanelec. With Jirka Zett, Miriam Horwitz, Angela Schanelec, Fritz Schediwy, Mark Waschke, Agnes Schanelec and others. Germany, 2007, 97 minutes (Forum)


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