Category Archives: Uncategorized

Doris Dorrie’s genial and scenic “Cherry Blossoms”

“Kirschblüten” (Cherry Blossoms, 2008) was a big hit in Germany. It evidences a sentimentality that I think is particularly German, though not one I would expect in a Doris Dörrie. Maybe it’s just that her movies that have made it across the Atlantic are comedies with considerable bite: “Männer” (Men, 1985) and “Erleuchtung garantiert” (Enlightenment Guaranteed, 1999). Like the second of those, “Kirschblüten” follows two Germans to Japan.

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It starts in Bavaria, however, with Trudi Angermeier (Hannelore Elsner) being told that her husband Rudi (Elmar Wepper) is terminally ill. She avers that his inflexibility is such that he should not be told. Without knowing of his condition or that it is the raison d’être, he goes with her to Berlin, where Klaus (Felix Eitner), a son who is the father of their two grandchildren lives, as does a lesbian daughter Emma (Floriane Daniel).

The children have unresolved issues, particularly the favoritism the parents showed for Karl, who has run further away, to Tokyo. They do not make time for their (admittedly unexpectedly) visiting parents. The one who treats them best, showing them around Berlin and accompany Trudi to a butoh performance is Emma’s lover Franzi (Nadja Uhl).

Trudi wanted to be a butoh dancer and to see her favorite son’s adopted land. When she and Rudi take in how little their children care about them, how ungracefully they tolerate their visit, they continue on to the Baltic coast.

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Only one of them will make it to Japan and staying with the other inhospitable, ungrateful child (Maximilian Brückner’s Karl). Considering that they could not figure out Berlin streetcar ticketing (with instructions in their own language), the vastly larger-scale and more alien is bound to be quite a challenge, but there is a homeless (well, she has a tent) butoh waif street performer (actually, she performs in a park) who helps the survivor get to Mount Fujiyama (which she says is “shy,” often hiding from view) and a final butoh dance.

I found the movie slow-paced, though very scenic (the tour of Berlin, cherry blossoms in bloom in Tokyo, Fuji, and the Bavarian Alps). The children who would not make time for their parents and had no patience with them made me cringe (and think of Ozu’s “Tokyo Story”), and is likely to stir guilt in most viewers who have recently become orphans, especially when the parents were very close and one was lost without the other…

Hannelore Elsner is immediately engaging as Trudi. Elmar Wepper, playing a man who always put work ahead of his children (in fact, he seems to have been more like an absent Japanese father than an authoritarian German one), is initially unsympathetic but evolves or unfolds or something. He deservedly won the German Film Award for best actor (losing the European one to Toni Servillo for “Il divo” and “Gomorra”). I’m not sure about Irizuki Aya (the waif/angel). Bruckner is very good as the prodigal son (the child who fled the greatest distance) and the one who is unable to maintain politesse.

BTW, though icons of evanescence, the cherry blossoms live longer than the mayfly (both have weighted places in the movie). And I especially liked the visit to the beach by the Angermeiers in funeral black and wearing shoes mixed with others is normal beach togs.

 

©2009, Stephen O. Murray

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Doris Dorrie bemused by some German men

“Männer” (“Men”, 1985, directed by Doris Dorrie, 4.3/5 stars) is a welcome relief form the all-enveloping depression of the middle-period Fassbinder movies. It is a romantic comedy in which a husband who finds out that his wife has been having an affair leaves, spies on the man, manages to become his roommate, becomes his confidant, and transforms the semi-hipies into an advertising executive who bores his wife. A gorilla mask is used effectively and the ending is very funny.

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“Erleuchtung garantiert” (Enlightenment Guaranteed, 2000) is almost as funny as “Manner” (Men). Like her 1985 movie, this one focuses on two highly contrasted German men with relationship problems. Uwe (Uwe Ochsenknecht, who was also in “Men” and other Dörrie films and looks more than a little like Kelsey Grammer) is a cranky kitchen-remodeling salesman with three noisy young children for whom he has little tolerance. Gustav (Gustav-Peter Wöhler who was in Dörrie’s 1998 “Am I Beautiful ) is a geomancer (feng shui practitioner) and Japanophile who has been looking forward to going to a Zen monastery in Japan to find inner peace, being very out of tune with his feelings and being a perfectionist who comes nowhere close to perfection.

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Different as they are in appearance and temperament, Uwe and Gustav are brothers. Both of them are dissatisfied with their lives (Uwe having a more serious midlife crisis, but less aware that he is having one that Gustav is). For reasons that could not be revealed without spoiling the funniest part of the plot, Uwe, who has always scoffed at Gustav’s interest in Buddhism and things Japanese, goes along. Gustav’s considerable frustration with how Uwe acts and thinks makes having Uwe along horrifying to Gustav, but blood is thicker than something or another. (There is some quite beautiful water later, BTW.)

Despite misadventures in Tokyo, they get to the monastery, where Gustav in particular has more problems and frustrations, while Big Brother fits in without any major problems or irritations.

The other monks are patient and helpful, genial and cheerful, with only a few having a smattering of English as a lingua franca. The monastic routines are filmed in detail. I was amazed that a monastery would allow a female film-maker such access. In a DVD bonus interview, Dörrie explained that a condition of being allowed to film in the monastery was that the whole crew (which included another woman) would follow the rigorous monastic discipline.

The two German men in the Monzen monastery is more or less a documentary, though they were acting in a fictional story. Uwe had a video camera and I think that both of them improvised at least some of what they recorded themselves or each other as saying. I think there is too much of this inthe movie, however.

In Munich, in Tokyo, and in Monzen there are some very funny moments (involving furniture, a miniature rock garden, a tent, wiping techniques, etc.). Filming with hand-held digital cameras was, Dörrie, explains not at all unusual in Tokyo, so that Hans Karl Hu seemed to the Tokyoites to be shooting “home movies” rather than a movie for theatrical release.

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The subtitles in the movie are clear (both visually and grammatically). The translated interview has some grammatical problems (it scrolls by rather than Dörrie speaking; I thought she spoke fluent English when she was here [the San Francisco International Film Festival] with “Men”). The questions are rather fatuous, too. The only other bonus features are one-page (partial) filmographies of Uwe and Gustav.

©2011, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

A Moroccan girl raised as a boy

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s 1985 fourth novel L’Enfant de Sable (translated as The Sand Child) first brought widespread attention to the Morocco-born (1943) French writer. Its protagonist is Mohammed Ahmed. Frustrated at only producing daughters (seven of them already), her father decides to raise the eighth one as a boy. Among other things, this will keep his estate from going to his brother for lack of a son to inherit. A circumcision is faked (with blood from her father’s finger), her breasts are bound, and she even marries a mistreated epileptic girl, Fatima.

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The story-teller draws on the journal filled with gender confusion written by Mohammed Ahmed, who once she can becomes Zahra (flower of flowers). For the time after the journal breaks off, a multitude of endings are imagined by those who have heard the story of the girl raised as a boy. (Her imposture never caused her to doubt her true gender. That is there was no role-self merger/role engulfmen.)

Apparently, Ben Jelloun became usatiisfied with the multiple endings, and in Nuit sacree/The Sacred Night (1987), chose a singular one. At the start of the second book, the father dies on the most auspicious of nights for death to be followed by salvation, the 27th night of Ramadan. Zahra xis snatched away from her father’s funeral by a splendidly mounted rider (“the Sheikh”) and taken to a seeming paradise otherwise inhabited entirely by children.

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She is a threat to the children already there and cannot stay there. Walking through the woods away from the lost paradise, she is raped (with at least acquiescence out of curiosity). She finds her way to a bathhouse, where the ugly and surly proprietress takes her in to help care for her brother, a blind Koranic teacher.

Zahra bonds with him, reads to him, talks to him, smokes kif with him, and eventually begins bedding him (in a bordello to which his sister had previously taken him and described the available women for him to rent).

The idyll is doomed by his sister’s jealousy. She unleashes the fearsome demons (uncle and sisters) of Zahra. In prison, the five sisters still in Morocco get to her and do some horrific things. Zahra survives and becomes first a letter-writer for illiterate fellow prisoners then is regarded as a saint. Surprisingly, there is a happy ending.

Other than the visits from her sisters, prison is not too horrible an experience for Zahra:

Finding myself behind bars made me realize how much my life as a man [actually, as a boy] had been like a prison. I had been confined to a single role, and in that sense deprived of freedom. Beyond the limits of that role lay catastrophe. At the time [covered by Sand Child] I had not been aware of how much I had suffered. My destiny had been twisted, my instincts suppressed, my body transfigured, my sexuality denied, my hopes destroyed. (135)

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I have to say that I like Ben Jelloun’s later realist novels more than the magic realism (or is it influence of French surrealism? Moroccan fairy tales?) in Sacred Night. I think that Sand Child is more innovative, though both books pound away at the inferiorization of women in Muslim societies. It was Sacred Night that won the most prestigious French literary away, the Prix Goncourt, however. Near the start Zahra proclaims that “there is no greatness or tragedy to my story.” This is the kind of statement that stirs a contrarian response from me, and I went on to be sure that there is tragedy aplenty (greatness in a story is not as easy to decide about).

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

A whydunit from Freidrich Dürrenmatt

I have no doubt that Frierdrich Dürrenmatt (1921-90) is the greatest Swiss writer in German ever (and the greatest Swiss writer in any language since Rousseau). Alas, The Execution of Justice (begun in 1957, when it is set, first published in German in Zurich, where it is set, in 1985 as Justiz) is not a great book—or even a good book. Fans of mystery novels (which Dürrenmatt was not*) will quickly abandon it, and most other readers will find it padded with place descriptions and backstories of minor (and not very interesting) characters. Sentences go on and on** and paragraphs run for pages without a break (I think that the longest is 19 pages).

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The book is an account of an attorney, Spat, who believes in justice, but takes on a job against his principles to concoct an alternative to the straightforward murder conviction of Isaak Kohler, a business magnate who went into a crowded restaurant and shot a professor who dined at the same table every night. Two things were missing in the original case: a motive and the murder weapon. Kohler was unperturbed through the trial and seems quite content in prison, making baskets, learning Esperanto and about beekeeping.

Spat employs the lawyer who has few clients, telling him that he is not “supposed to investigate reality . . . but rather one of the possibilities behind the reality.” Spat eventually (and wrongly) concludes that Kphler’s “motive was too abstract for our system of justice,” though a desire to play God (which he correctly imputes) is not all that abstract. Spat is determined to execute justice, though he becomes aware that “executing justice is something different from having to live in the expectation of executing it.”

More or less everything is revealed in an epilogue to “Spat’s manuscript,” for anyone still interested. The author who has long had but not read the manuscript, judges that “the [dilettante] author, a lawyer, was no match for his material.” Along the way are many digs at Swiss society/character. And what the sociologist (Knulpe) Kohler also retained to study the consequences of a murder concluded is not revealed (which may disturb only other sociologists, with so much else to disturb readers, not least a statement by someone who has been there that “a person was only truly free when being raped.”

*An unbylined afterword reports that “Dürrenmatt thought detective novels should reflect the absurdity of real life rather than proceeding like mathematical equations with a definite solution. Of the traditional crime writers, he once said, “You set up your stories logically, like a chess game: all the detective needs to know is [sic.] the rules, he replays the moves of the game, and checkmate, the criminal is caught and justice has triumphed. This fantasy drives me crazy” and is not one he embraced, even if film producers insisted on a neat conclusion for The Pledge. Contrary to the back cover blurb, Execution of Justice is not as terse as a Maigret mystery. Simenon’s Maigret novels surely embody what Dürrenmatt disliked in the genre with which he toyed (generally to more interesting results than here).

** An example from a page selected at random (184): “I sensed that night as I became aware of what could have become of me, of a possibility beyond my grasp, which lay within me but which I had not actualized [yuck!] and because I was happy then, for one whole night long, I was convinced that I would become what I did not become.” And on the same page: “I did not tell her that her father had been forced to murder (even if that infernal dwarf may have wanted it), that he was simply taking pleasure in playing God on this wretched planet of ours, and that I had sold myself twice over, once to him and once to a star lawyer who took his pleasure in letting the game of justice be played out, like a master who magnanimously takes over in a chess game that a novice has begun.”

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

Some other reviews of better Dürenmatt works:

Romulus, the Great

The Pledge

The Judge and the Hangman

The Quarry

 

Obsessions of a French writer

“In this world of lies, truth is forced to flee into the woods like a frightened white deer.”

Jean, the 50-year-old narrator of Yannick Haenel’s (1967-) Hold Fast Your Crown (first published in French in 2017 as Tiens ferme ta couronne) provides fair warning at the start: “At the time, I was crazy—let’s just say I was possessed—names, books, films, lines from books and films, were teeming, alive, inside my head, they planned bacchanals together, and there was nothing I could do to pull them apart.” Hold Fast details a period when, after publishing a few novels, he had completed and was trying to sell a 700-page (requiring a 14 hour running time) analytic biopic “to express what inhabits the solitude of a writer”, in particular, “the mystical honeycombed interior” of Herman Melville, a project “for which I had insanely abandoned my friends, my joy, the novels I was writing — in fact, life itself.”

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Jean is pretty insouciant for someone with only 20 euros left: “I had already written the screenplay. I had nothing more to fear. What ruin could I dread? I had written novels, I could write more — I had a thousand ideas for novels in my head, but first I wanted to pursue the adventure of this screenplay to its end.”

Jean becomes convinced that one of his idols, American director Michael Cimino, is the person to direct his screenplay. Though Cimino had become a recluse after a series of commercial flops (and a second racist success in the 1985 “Year of the Dragon,” when Jean gets Cimino’s phone number and calls him, Cimino arranges to meet Jean at the Frick in New York City, so that he can get a book about Malraux not available in the US. (Cimino is thinking about trying to film Malraux’s La condition humaine/Man’s Fate). Jean spends hours in front of the (disputed) Rembrandt Polish Rider, waiting. After the museum closes, Cimino (in drag) finds Jean, reads 150 pages of the screenplay in Central Park, then decides they have to visit Ellis Island. It is nighttime and the (Staten Island) ferry only provides looks at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

I have failed to mention that both before his one-day round trip to NYC, Jean compulsively watches Cimino’s disastrous failure “Heaven’s Gate” and Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now, Redux). He also thinks a lot about Cimino’s great success, “The Deer Hunter,” particularly the scene in which Robert De Niro does not shoot the deer that is in his crosshairs. Other deer are important to the novel’s rambling plot. (I don’t know why Jean does not also screen Coppola’s Vietnam movie, “Gardens of Stone”—I guess it was not as obsessive. The other movie frequently alluded to by others but not watched by Jean, is Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” (a particular favorite of mine). Plus there are many quotations from Melville.

Back in Paris, on his 50th birthday Jean dines with Isabelle Huppert (star of “Heaven’s Gate”), drinks himself into oblivious, begins a romance with Léna and manages to lose Sabbat, the Dalmatian entrusted to his care by Tot, a professional gambler whose apartment Jean is occupying, and whose houseplants he has allowed to die. There are also the victims of a terrorist attack that night plus a pair of African refugees Jean whisks away from a raid on an encampment of illegal immigrants to France.

After accompanying Léna to Colmar, where she delivers a God-challenging eulogy in front of her sister’s open casket in front of Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece in the Unterlinden Museum, he moves on to “Diana’s Pool,” Lake Nemi (where the goddess turned Actaeon into a stag who was quickly killed by her hunting dogs), a ways southeast of Rome, hopes that Léna will follow him, and writes the book we’ve been reading

(The book won the Prix Medicis, and was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt. The title derives from Revelations 3:11, a warning from the Savior who says he is coming soon. Teresa Lavender Fagan did the English translation.).)

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

The Last Friend

Generalizing from the two novels I’ve read by Tahar ben-Jelloun (born in Fez in 1944, emigrated to France in 1971) his recurring interests are in exploring the high psychic (and social) costs of emigration from Morocco to Europe and the “white terror” including disappearances and very long imprisonment without trial of Moroccans expressing (even in private) discontents with the authoritarian postcolonial rule of the Alaouite dynasty King Hassan II (who ruled from 1956 to 1999 and whose regime developed procedures of torture that were used on those “rendered” by the CIA to Morocco as possible terrorists).

Ben-Jelloun’s book based on interviews with survivors of Hassan’s desert concentration camps for dissidents and suspected dissidents won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2004. His novel La Nuit Sacrée won the Prix Goncourt in 1987.)

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His 2006 novel The Last Friend (La dernier ami, 2004) recounts from the perspective of Ali, whose family migrated from Fez (a city to which many of the Jewish and Muslim subjects of their Catholic majesties Ferdinand and Isabella who refused to convert moved at the end of the fifteenth century; some of the Jews later converted to Islam there). The frail but spirited Ali was an outsider amongst the Tangier natives. Mamed (short for Mohammed, a shortening his father considers blasphemous) is a darker, tougher fifteen-year-old in the same French school, who comes to Ali’s defense.

They become bestest friends. Both leave Morocco to study abroad: Mamed medicine in France, Ali film studies in Canada. Returning for visits, both are apprehended by the (not-so-)secret police and held for a total of 18 months. Ali finds Mamed already there, weak from being tortured. Each believes the other saved his life during a medical emergency during their incarceration.

Though “pardoned” (without having been tried, let alone convicted), Ali cannot get his passport back and enrolls in Rabat University in history, which he later teaches. Mamed becomes a physician and eventually moves to Stockholm, though seemingly working on tropical pulmonary diseases.

Mamed married first and suspected that Ali, who had been leading a playboy existence, married in emulation of Mamed. The wives are jealous of the greater trust, built on many more years of association and shared traumas, of their husbands, but despite geographic distance Ali and Mamed can read each other like an open book.

A wife impinging — or incessantly seeking to impinge — on male pleasures, including spending time with friends (in tea or coffee shops rather than bars in Morocco), seems a leitmotif of Moroccan (and, more generally, Maghreb) literature. Their jealousy of those outside the family unit wears on friendship as the waves erode coastal bluffs.

There are some surprises awaiting the reader after Ali tells his story of the friendship. There is not a “Rashomon effect” in hearing Mamed’s account, though it provides fresh insights about many matters in the three decades each narrates (followed by two shorter documents about the end).

Mamed learned Swedish and was highly regarded by his colleagues, but missed Morocco more than his wife and children and/or missed having a friend who had known him growing up and undergoing incarceration. The final self-sacrifice is moving, when it becomes explicable.

The translation by Kevin Michel Capé and Hazel Rowley is very conversational rather than literary. Between that and the more manageable cast of characters, I found The Last Friend easier to stay with than I had Leaving Tangier, which I found easy to put down at least until I reached the midway point in it.

Also see my review of Leaving Tangier.

 

©2010, Stephen O. Murray

Abdication of responsibility by the Italian state

“When you act against your own interests (when you sabotage yourself), it is always out of loyalty to something more obscure which you secretly know is right.” — Yannick Haenal, Hold Fast Your Crown

I refuse to accept that State of Absence by Tahar Ben Jelloun (Leaving Tangier), published in French in 1993 is a novel, though both author and publisher refer to it as a “Mafia novel.” Where particular stories occur is not always marked, though Sicily is the predominant location.

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There is no continuity of characters, nor a single plot-line. I see the book as a series of variations on two themes. The first is the southern Italian code of omertà that forbids telling police what one saw and/or what everyone knows.

The other is the abdication of the (Italian) state from trying to curb the Mafia. The “absence” of the state is right there in the title. At one point, the state is likened to a soap bubble (138). “The state does not make its presence felt” (41) “They spend their time acquitting assassins and putting pressure on innocent victims.” (51) “We are passed over by the State, forgotten by the government., stuck in a third-class waiting room.” (58) “The real stranger here is the State. It doesn’t dare show itself here.” (77)

“Killing has become so easy, so simple, no one feels any surprise at disappearances.” (59) “Everybody knows and no one says anything.” (107) “In this country everyone knows the truth, but no one can prove it, so it’s of no use.” (119)

In addition to one story of an influx of Africans to harvest tomatoes (“African Night”), for me the best story is “Widow Courage, in which a woman inadvertently reveals who executed her husband (and why). The worst IMO is “Woman of Naples.” The author and/or characters obsession with large female breasts is tedious IMO.

I think things are better there now, after some the Mafia super-trials and outrage at the murders of judges.

©2019, Stephen O. Murray