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By Jason Apuzzo. Imagine being subjected to 24-hour secret police surveillance, or being surrounded by informers at your place of work – whose mission is to gain your confidence in order to evaluate your loyalty to the state.

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Or imagine being subjected to random body searches, conducted by capricious security officials with too much time on their hands. (OK, admittedly we already have that – even if only at our nation’s airports.)

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For the most part, however, Americans only have a dim sense of what it’s like to live in a truly repressive society – such as East Germany was behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. And this, ultimately, is the true value of director Christian Petzold’s gripping new film Barbara, which starts its U.S. theatrical run in December and recently screened at the AFI Festival in Hollywood. Germany’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Barbara is the most compelling depiction since The Lives of Others of day-to-day life in a modern surveillance state, in this case the communist East Germany of the early 1980s.


Nina Hoss as Barbara.

Already the winner of the Silver Bear for Best Director (Christian Petzold) at the Berlin Film Festival, Barbara stars Nina Hoss in the title role as a pediatric surgeon whose promising career at the prestigious Charité hospital in East Berlin is cut short when she files for an Ausreiseantrag, officially expressing her desire to leave East Germany. A terse and enigmatic blonde, Dr. Barbara Wolff also happens to be in the midst of a torrid, secret affair with a West German businessman – who’s quietly arranging for her escape to the West, as he makes officially sanctioned business trips into East Germany.

As punishment for her desire to leave East Germany, Barbara is sent to a rural hospital near the Baltic Sea, where she works under the watchful eye of Dr. André Reiser (actor Ronald Zehrfeld), who heads a modest pediatric unit. André tries to get chummy with Barbara, which she resists – suspecting him of being an informant for the Stasi (the East German secret police), who periodically arrive at her front door to strip search her or otherwise harass her.

Just another day in East Germany’s worker-paradise, you might say.

As the story unfolds, however, Barbara slowly warms up to André, as she gradually comprehends his quiet, understated resistance to the inhumanity around them. She also grows absorbed in her clinical work with children – especially Stella, a pregnant escapee from a socialist labor camp, whose only wish is to raise her child in the freedom of the West. Barbara’s feelings of professional and personal responsibility for Stella complicate her own plans to defect, leading to the film’s suspenseful finale.


A climate of fear.

‘Understated’ really is the word for Barbara. Don’t expect lengthy speeches about tyranny, or furniture-smashing sex scenes in this film. More like an austere German drama from the 1970s (Volker Schlöndorff’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum comes to mind), Barbara gets most of its mileage out of quiet moments of drama between people who by force of circumstance are incapable of trusting each other.

As such, the film becomes a profound indictment against the type of society in which allegiance to a political system overwhelms common humanity.

Having myself visited East Germany and the Soviet Union prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and having known Soviet dissidents (including one who worked in the Kremlin), my sense is that Barbara gets the details right in terms of depicting the inauthentic, paranoid lives people led behind the Iron Curtain – particularly those with secrets to keep. The film also captures the creepy voyeurism that fuels the modern surveillance state – where the bogus imperatives of political fanatics justify shocking levels of access into people’s private lives.

Nina Hoss is already getting Oscar buzz for her performance as Barbara, and with good reason: she brings a distinctly European mixture of intelligence, world-weariness and discreet sexiness to her role. (It’s easy to imagine Deborah Kerr or Eleanor Parker playing her role in another era.) The rest of the cast fares similarly well – particularly Rainer Bock as the chief Stasi officer. By contrast, Ronald Zehrfeld sometimes seems too soft and cuddly as André, a man ostensibly doing double-duty as head of a clinic and state’s informer – but in the film’s sweeter, more intimate moments he shines.

The cost of a conscience.

The main takeaway of Barbara is that we don’t want our own society ever looking like East Germany does in this film – dreary, lifeless and deeply fearful. It’s a punitive, masochistic world lacking any defining features beyond those associated with mindless (and heartless) political conformity.

Of course, the totalitarian society shown in Barbara is also one that was doomed to collapse, in no small measure due to the type of quiet heroism and compassion depicted in the film. That’s Barbara’s other big takeaway – the importance of individual heroism, and fidelity to one’s conscience – and it’s a message that’s as important today as it was when the Wall came down.

Posted on November 19th, 2012 at 12:47pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Finland and the Soviet Union shared some complicated history over the last hundred years or so. They fought at least two wars against each other, give or take, and then brought the world the term “Findlandization.” In contrast, Estonia and the U.S.S.R.’s relations were more straight-forward. The latter forcibly dominated the former, and the Baltic Republic did not like it one little bit. Although it tells an Estonian story, Sofi Oksanen’s novel has had great resonance for Finnish readers. In fact, former East Carolina University basketball recruit Antti J. Jokinen’s adaptation of Oksanen’s international bestseller Purge has been selected by Finland as their official foreign language Academy Award submission.

One fateful night, Zara, a sex slave fleeing her Russian mobster captors, seeks refuge at Aliide’s remote farm house. The old woman is instantly suspicious, but she takes in the exploited woman nonetheless. As it happens, Zara did not make her way there by accident. Their tragic histories are intertwined, as the audience learns in a series of flashbacks.

Aliide was always a little strange. While she fell head over heels for the dashing Hans Pekk, it is her sister Ingel who turns his head. Yet Aliide is more than willing to help Ingel shelter her former freedom fighter brother-in-law from the Soviet authorities. Frankly, she kind of likes knowing exactly where he is at all times. Decades later, that secret hiding space under the floor boards will come in handy again.

In a case of ironic symmetry, both women will suffer tremendously at the hands of Russians. Even though Aliide eventually marries a true believer, she still cannot avoid seeing the inside of a Communist torture chamber. Despite all the humiliations Zara endures as an unwilling prostitute, Aliide’s torments are probably even worse. As a result, Purge is often a difficult film to watch, but it is never exploitative or morally ambiguous in the ways it presents such horrors. Whether motivated by ideology or sadism, the reality of rape and assault remain the same.

Laura Birn gives an incredible performance as the mid-twentieth century Aliide. A twitchy young woman in an apparent state of arrested development, she is not the sort of victim figure viewers can easily embrace. In truth, she has a bit of a Machiavellian streak, yet she still experiences more pain and degradation than anyone could possibly deserve.

Jokinen is not afraid to confront his audience with all manner of atrocities. Nonetheless, he also shows a deft touch with the quiet moments occasionally stolen by the Estonian lovers. He clearly differentiates each time period without resorting to distracting visual gimmicks, balancing each narrative relatively evenhandedly.

Purge might be a dark horse contender, but Jokinen has Hollywood ties, having directed Hillary Swank-Kadyrov and Jeffrey Dean Morgan in The Resident, so who knows? Purge is certainly a quality period production, which often counts for something with Academy voters. It might be a bit too honest for their tastes, though. Regardless, Purge would be an enormously worthy nominee, definitely recommended for patrons who have a chance to catch it on the festival circuit.


Posted on November 19th, 2012 at 12:46pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Austrian born artist Gottfried Helnwein hosted the wedding ceremony of Marilyn Manson and Dita Von Teese, presided over by Alejandro Jodorowsky. That fact alone sets off plenty of alarm bells. Nonetheless, Helnwein has produced an impressive body of work, largely informed by the horrors of the Holocaust. It was the themes and sensitivities of his oeuvre that inspired the Israeli Opera to commission Helnwein’s designs for an ambitious new production. Lisa Kirk Colburn documents the visual artist’s sometimes dramatic collaborative process in Gottfried Helnwein and the Dreaming Child (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In a telling historical irony, Helnwein was accepted by the art academy that famously rejected Hitler. Coming of age at a time the Holocaust simply was not discussed in Austria, Helnwein discovered the truth on his own. The revelation profoundly influenced his work both as a student and a mature artist. Images of children in various states of vulnerability reappear over and over in his photo-realist paintings. Not surprisingly, Helnwein had a deep affinity for Hanoch Levin’s allegorical play, The Dreaming Child and its Helnweinesque title character.

When Helnwein designs a stage production, he does not dash off a few set decorations and call it a day. Essentially he takes over the show, at least to judge by the evidence of Dreaming Child. Director and co-librettist Omri Nitzan comes across like an evenhanded mediator, but some of the Opera’s creative crew clash repeatedly with the celebrity artist. That’s just what you get when you bring in a design auteur.

From "Gottfried Helnwein and the Dreaming Child."

Leading up to the premiere of Dreaming Child, Helnwein also mounts a new showing of his large scale public installation piece, Selektion. Frankly, the story behind that piece (and its rather rocky debut in Cologne) might be even more documentary-worthy than the Dreaming Child production.

Fortunately, Colburn’s film shows us more than Helnwein puttering about his studio. In fact, he is an artist with something to say and he takes advantage of the opportunity to do so. To her credit, Colburn does not leave any obvious questions unaddressed, showing her subject’s high-handedness as well as his passion and empathy. Viewers should note: there is also a brief but humanizing post-credits stinger. It looks like a cool shot Colburn fell in love with, but could not figure out any other place to put it.

An engaging art documentary comparable to recent releases like Bel Borba Aqui and Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, Dreaming Child also offers additional social-historical significance by forthrightly exploring the themes of Helnwein and Levin’s work. Recommended for Helnwein’s fans and patrons of Israeli culture, Gottfried Helnwein and the Dreaming Child opens this Friday (11/23) in New York at the Quad Cinema.


Posted on November 19th, 2012 at 12:45pm.

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Chinese silent film star Li Lili.

By Joe Bendel. Like Ruan Lingyu, Li Lili was a true diva of silent Chinese cinema. And if you think former diva status would not be particularly convenient during the Cultural Revolution, your suspicions are correct. Having upstaged Madame Mao in the 1930’s hardly helped, either. Yet there should have been no complaints about the ideological content of Sun Yu’s Daybreak, which screens this Tuesday as part of the Asia Society’s current film series, Goddess: Chinese Women on Screen.

Ling Ling is a fresh faced country girl, who comes to Shanghai with her man in search of employment. Briefly, things look promising when they find work at a yarn factory. Unfortunately, trouble with the law forces him to ship out as a merchant seaman, leaving her vulnerable to the city’s predatory elements.

First, Ling Ling is drugged and raped by the playboy factory owner. Later, when wandering lost through the city, she is sold into a brothel by an ostensive protector. It might be a bad business, but Ling Ling adapts to it, reasserting command of her illicit destiny as a high-priced prostitute, but with both a heart of gold and a raised political consciousness. Dispensing aid to her struggling neighbors while conspiring with subversive elements, Ling Ling truly becomes a new woman.

From "Daybreak."

Of course, it ends tragically. All the best propaganda does. Although Daybreak is not as stylishly realized as Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess, a revolutionary hooker is certainly a much more attractive radicalizing agent than a clenched-fist factory worker. The camera absolutely loves her – and just like Ruan, Li Lili knew how to milk a death scene for all its worth.

It is not hard to see why Li was such a diva of the silent era (in fact, she was once part of a theatrical tandem known as the Four Divas). Her Ling Ling is cute, innocent, and eventually saucy – but nobody’s dummy. Despite all the wrongs done to Ling Ling, she is never a mere victim in Daybreak, which is a major reason why it remains such a notable work.

A product of its time, Daybreak is an interesting but imperfect film, whereas Li’s story is absolutely fascinating. China’s last living silent film star, she led an epic life in ways both great and terrifying. Indeed, it raises a great historical “what if” question. In the way we wonder about Hitler’s artistic frustrations, perhaps if Lan Ping (a.k.a. Jiang Qing) had been a better actress, the suffering of millions might have been avoided. Recommended in its own right, mostly for Li Lili’s luminous presence, Daybreak screens this Tuesday night (11/20) at the Asia Society, as their can’t miss Goddess series continues.


Posted on November 19th, 2012 at 12:44pm.

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