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Tag Archives: Berlin Alexanderplatz

The Best of Leonard Cohen in the Movies

Yesterday marked the 80th birthday of Leonard Cohen (AKA the second greatest living songwriter in the English language). Since I have been in the habit of composing an annual Bob Dylan birthday post for the past four years, I thought I’d commemorate this occasion by listing my favorite instances of Cohen’s music in the movies. Enjoy.

“The Stranger Song,” “Sisters of Mercy” and “Winter Lady” in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

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Robert Altman’s anti-capitalist/anti-western masterpiece stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie — both de-glammed to the point of being almost unrecognizable — as an odd couple who attempt an ill-fated get rich quick scheme of establishing a brothel in the middle of nowhere. The film is essentially a mood piece about the central location, a fledgling mining town named “Presbyterian Church,” rendered by Altman and D.P. Vilmos Zsigmond as a brown, hazy, membranous world of earthy/murky sights and sounds. The glue holding everything together is a suite of Leonard Cohen’s finest songs, all taken from his first album, each of which is associated with a particular character or group of characters: “The Stranger Song” is the theme of Beatty’s McCabe, “Winter Lady” is the theme of Christie’s Mrs. Miller, and “Sisters of Mercy” is associated with the prostitutes. The lyrics of the songs are so fitting, in fact, that it’s almost difficult to believe that they weren’t written expressly for this film, which feels in more ways than one like a precursor to Altman’s cult-classic musical Popeye. For setting tone, there is nothing quite like the opening credits here — with Beatty entering town on horseback while the titles slowly drift across the screen from right to left and Cohen’s monotone baritone intones, “It’s true that all the men you knew were dealers who said they were through with dealing every time you gave them shelter . . .”

“Chelsea Hotel #2” in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

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Rainer Werner Fassbinder was obsessed with Leonard Cohen. The invaluable Leonard Cohen Files website shows that the great German director featured the Canadian songwriter’s work in no less than six of his movies. I’ll pick the use of “Chelsea Hotel #2” in the final episode of Berlin Alexanderplatz as my favorite simply because that epic miniseries is my favorite of all Fassbinder’s achievements. The song’s presence is, of course, anachronistic because Fassbinder’s adaptation of Alfred Doblin’s novel takes place entirely in the pre-Nazi Weimar era. Nonetheless, Fassbinder’s bugfuck “epilogue,” the final hour of what is essentially a 15-and-a-half-hour movie, is basically the director’s daring, fever-dream meditation on Doblin’s plot, characters and themes (where the story’s psychosexual subtext is more explicitly spelled out — amidst the symbolic images of a boxing match, frolicking angels and nuclear explosions). As a bonus, this episode features Kraftwerk too!

“Avalanche” in Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water (1994)

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Maverick French director Olivier Assayas’s filmography can be broken fairly neatly into two categories: daring but not-always-successful genre mash-ups (e.g., Irma Vep, Boarding Gate, Demonlover, etc.) and more conventional, autobiographical character studies (e.g., Cold Water, Summer Hours, Something in the Air, etc.). One of the things that binds all of these disparate films together is Assayas’s always-deft use of pop music (especially from his own formative years of the 60s and early 70s). My favorite Assayas film is 1994’s Cold Water, an unsentimental re-imagining of the director’s own troubled teenaged years centering on his alter-ego “Gilles” (who would return in 2012’s Something in the Air) and his relationship with his girlfriend Christine. The highlight of Cold Water is a climactic party scene in which the protagonists smoke hash and dance around a bonfire to a stellar playlist of tunes including Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Around the Bend,” Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Avalanche,” the haunting track that kicks off Leonard Cohen’s great Songs of Love and Hate album.

“I’m Your Man” in Steve James’s Life Itself (2014)

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Although I wasn’t as enamored of Steve James’s adaptation of Roger Ebert’s memoir as a lot of critics, I can find no fault with his almost unbearably poignant use of “I’m Your Man,” the title track of Cohen’s remarkable 1988 comeback album. Ebert explains that the song literally saved his life when he and his wife Chaz lingered for a while in his hospital room to listen to it instead of leaving the hospital following jaw surgery. A blood vessel burst under Ebert’s chin mid-song and, because the Eberts were still in close proximity to doctors (and not, say, in a cab on the way home), the doctors were able to save his life. The fact that the song plays during a scene where Roger and Chaz tell the story allows the lyrics to have a parallel function as a testament to their love for each other: “If you want a boxer,” Cohen sings, “I’ll step into the ring for you / And if you want a doctor, I’ll examine every inch of you / If you want a driver, climb inside / Or if you want to take me for a ride / You know you can / I’m your man.”

“Take This Waltz” in Jean-Luc Godard’s Letter in Motion to Gilles Jacob and Thierry Fremaux (2014)

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Like Fassbinder, Jean-Luc Godard has used the music of Leonard Cohen in multiple projects: the short Puissance de la parole, the mammoth video series Histoire(s) du Cinema and his most recent project Letter in Motion to Gilles Jacob and Thierry Fremaux, the “video letter” he sent to the Cannes Film Festival to explain why he could not be present in person to present his new movie Goodbye to Language. In the manner of much recent Godard, this cryptic short film features clips from the director’s own previous work (notably King Lear, which had scandalized the festival in 1987) intercut with punning title cards and clips of Godard speaking in the present day. The nearly nine-minute film ends with Godard saying: “So, I’m going where the wind blows me, just like autumn leaves as they blow away. Last year for example, I took the tramway, which is a metaphor, the metaphor and . . . to return, to return to pay my dues from 1968 at the Havana Bar . . . and now, I believe that the possibility of explaining things is the only excuse to fight with language . . . as always, I believe it’s not possible . . . this May 21st . . . this is no longer a film but a simple waltz, my president, to find the true balance with one’s near destiny.” Immediately upon saying “a simple waltz, my president,” Cohen’s sublime “Take This Waltz” (also from the I’m Your Man album) can be heard. This is then followed by a clip of Bob Dylan singing, “How long must I listen to the lies of prejudice?” from “When He Returns.” Poetry on top of poetry on top of poetry, folks.

Leonard Cohen’s new album, Popular Problems, drops on September 23rd. You can check out the video for his superb new song “Almost Like the Blues” via YouTube below:

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A New German Cinema Primer

Inspired by the French New Wave, the New German Cinema was formed by a loose affiliation of filmmakers in the late 1960s as a reaction against the commercially-oriented and artistically moribund German cinema of the previous several generations. The movement picked up steam in the 1970s when its three most famous proponents (Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog) became fixtures on the international art house circuit. Although that trio remains the public face of the New German Cinema to this day, there are many other wonderful filmmakers associated with the movement who helped to reinvigorate world cinema and continued the artistic innovations begun by the nouvelle vague in the post-1968 era. Below are 10 essential films by 10 different directors that I consider lynchpins of the New German Cinema.

The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Straub/Huillet, 1968)

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Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet are the odd persons out in this primer both by virtue of their nationality (they were born and raised in France) and in the sense that their works were more avant-garde than the other directors more commonly associated with the New German Cinema. But they made most of their films in Germany contemporaneously with the other filmmakers listed here, were affiliated with the “Oberhausen group” — an important predecessor to the New German Cinema — and collaborated on a 1968 short film with Fassbinder and his theater troupe. That very same year they also released their first feature film, a biopic of Johann Sebastien Bach that consists mostly of static long-takes of the composer (played by virtuoso harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt) performing many of his greatest works live on camera. Linking these scenes are interludes depicting Bach’s domestic life that feature his wife, Anna (Christiane Lang), reading excerpts from her diary. Often referred to as “austere,” “rigorous” and “demanding,” this is probably the least conventional and yet arguably the greatest biopic ever made about a classical composer: by focusing relentlessly on his music, Straub and Huillet bring us as close as cinematically possible to the man.

Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Herzog, 1972)

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Werner Herzog was probably less interested in the specific socio-political climate of post-war Germany than any of his fellow German New Wavers. His point of view was always more cosmic, his great subject always man vs. nature, which is nowhere more apparent than in Aguirre: The Wrath of God, the film many would call his masterpiece. The plot details a 16th century expedition of Spanish conquistadors to South America in search of “El Dorado,” the mythical city of gold, a journey destined to end in madness and despair. Aguirre is notable for being the first of many collaborations between Herzog and his alter-ego Klaus Kinski, unforgettable as the eponymous Don Lope de Aguirre, whose journey into the heart of darkness causes him to lose his grip on reality. The view of human nature on display is as bleak as it is absurd but there’s no denying the conviction of Herzog’s vision, nor the hypnotic quality of the images, impressively captured on location in the jungles of South America.

Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave (Kluge, 1973)

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Everyone should see at least one movie by Alexander Kluge (and if you like it, see more). I recommend starting with Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave, a Godardian/Brechtian account of a housewife and mother, Roswitha Bronski (Alexandra Kluge, the director’s sister), who works part-time as an illegal abortionist. Although she first embarks on her profession merely as a means to pull in extra income for her family, Roswitha becomes increasingly radicalized along political lines as the narrative progresses — particularly after the factory that employs her husband plans on shipping jobs to Portugal. This bold experiment mixes documentary-like scenes (including graphic images of a real abortion) with political slogans and omniscient narration, resulting in a provocative and heady intellectual stew. But Kluge, unlike his countryman R.W. Fassbinder (not to mention Godard), is more interested in sociology than cinema and his movies consequently remain fascinating documents of the time and place in which they were made that do not necessarily transcend them.

Tenderness of the Wolves (Lommel, 1973)

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Out of all the films of the New German Cinema, this is the one that feels the most indebted to the classic German Expressionist films of the 1920s and early 30s — though the tropes of Expressionism have certainly been updated to the 1970s with a vengeance. Tenderness of the Wolves tells the disturbing true story of Fritz Harrmann, a serial killer dubbed the “Werewolf of Hanover,” who molested, killed and cannibalized at least two dozen boys in the years immediately after WWI, which the filmmakers have updated to the post-WWII years for budgetary reasons. This was written by Kurt Raab who also plays Harrmann as a kind of real-life Nosferatu (surely the bald head and slightly pointy ears are no coincidence), and directed by Ulli Lommel. Both were proteges of Rainer Werner Fassbinder who produced and also has a small role. The supporting cast is a veritable who’s-who of the Fassbinder stock company, so fans of the great German director (and/or true crime aficionados with strong stomachs) cannot afford to miss this.

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Von Trotta/Schlondorff, 1975)

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Katharina Blum, a young “domestic,” has a one-night stand with a man who, unbeknownst to her, is a wanted anarchist-terrorist. The next morning she is arrested by the police and subject to intensive interrogation. Upon being released, she is hounded by an unscrupulous yellow journalist and harassed by both her acquaintances and total strangers. While the film functions as a plea for the civil rights of individual citizens and comes down hard on both the government and the press, this is no simple polemic. Margarethe Von Trotta and Volker Schlondorff (who were married at the time) co-wrote and co-directed this adaptation of Heinrich Boll’s novel, which ambitiously captures the turbulent political climate at the time — when “anti-imperialist” terrorism was rampant in Germany — with all of the intelligence and complexity the subject deserves. Angela Winkler is excellent in the title role but some contemporary viewers might get an even bigger kick out of spying a young Dieter Laser (the mad scientist in The Human Centipede) in an early role as the sleazy reporter.

Hitler: A Film from Germany (Syberberg, 1977)

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Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s colossal, experimental seven-hour anti-biopic considers the rise and fall of Hitler from a variety of perspectives, all of them Brechtian, which play out on a single dark soundstage equipped with rear projection. Through a series of lengthy monologues we see a multiplicity of Hitlers (Hitler as Charlie Chaplin, Hitler as literal puppet, Hitler as M‘s Hans Beckert, Hitler as ventriloquist’s dummy, etc.), a cluster of signifiers that attempt to show not only how Hitler came to power but what he “means” — as lessons from the holocaust continue to reverberate on the world-historical stage. We also meet other figures of the Third Reich both real (Himmler), fictional (Hitler’s private projectionist) or a hybrid of the two (Hitler’s personal valet), each of whom serves to guide us through this long dark night of the German soul. Syberberg also explicitly deals with the problems of representing his subject without sensationalizing it and the deliberately didactic end result consequently alternates between being riveting and boring. Never before have I encountered a work of art that seemed at once so truly great and yet so necessarily tedious.

The American Friend (Wenders, 1977)

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Since the release of his beloved Wings of Desire in 1987, the critical reputation of Wim Wenders has taken a nosedive (at least as a director of fiction features). But for much of the 1970s and 1980s he was considered to be at the vanguard of international arthouse cinema. Wenders has always been deeply indebted to American culture (as evidenced by my favorite of his films, this adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel), which he filters through his distinctly European/existential sensibility. The American Friend revolves around Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper), an American con artist living in Berlin, and how he contracts a picture framer with a fatal disease (Bruno Ganz) to commit murder. But story ultimately takes a back seat to characterization and, more importantly, atmosphere in this slow-paced, moody neo-noir, which features appropriate and delightful cameos from American noir specialists Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray.

Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder, 1980)

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Of all the directors associated with the New German Cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was arguably the greatest and, with some 44 titles to his credit — most of them features (in a career spanning just 16 years!) — certainly the most crazily prolific. Berlin Alexanderplatz is my favorite of Fassbinder’s films, a 15-and-a-half-hour made-for-television epic that ambitiously adapts Alfred Doblin’s equally mammoth 1929 novel. The film begins with Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), the protagonist and tragic anti-hero, being released from prison on a manslaughter charge. From there Fassbinder’s fantasia on Doblin’s narrative follows Biberkopf through the dark underbelly of 1920s Berlin as the country is still reeling from the aftermath of WWI and with the rise of the Third Reich just around the corner. Of special interest is Biberkopf’s psychosexual infatuation with his criminal lowlife partner Reinhold, which is thoroughly explored in Fassbinder’s daring experimental epilogue. This ranks alongside of Fritz Lang’s M as one of the all-time great German movies.

Germany, Pale Mother (Sanders-Brahms, 1980)

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Helma Sanders-Brahms’ controversial Germany, Pale Mother was probably the New German Cinema film that confronted the Nazi era (a topic then still taboo) most directly. It tells the story of the lives of ordinary people — primarily a man, Hans (Ernst Jacobi), and a woman, Lene (Eva Mattes) — based on the director’s own parents, and how their lives and relationships are torn apart by World War II. One powerful montage sequence shows the couple’s daughter, Anna, being born during an air raid (complete with documentary footage), which gives the film something of an allegorical flavor, but this is mostly a realistic and observational portrait that feels as if it were made as a form of therapy by someone intent on better understanding their parents’ generation and thus their country’s history. Mattes, a veteran of films by Herzog and Fassbinder, is phenomenal in the lead role.

Palermo or Wolfsburg (Schroeter, 1980)

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The one and only film I’ve seen by the esteemed Werner Schroeter is this 1980 masterwork that has left me eager to fill in on more. Palermo or Wolfsburg is a three-hour movie about a Sicilian laborer named Nicola who moves to Germany seeking better opportunities in life. He gets a job in a Volkswagen factory, embarks on an ill-fated love affair and tragically ends up committing a double homicide. For most of its length this is an impressively naturalistic culture-clash drama that captures the feelings of homesickness and alienation that should be familiar to anyone who has spent a prolonged time in a country far from home. Then, in the murder trial that serves as the climax, Schroeter daringly switches modes to offer something more subjective and surreal, allowing his penchant for flamboyant, experimental cinema and his side career as an opera director to come to the fore. They just don’t make ’em like this any more.


Top 25 Films of the 1980s

25. The Cyclist (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1987)

Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s incredible film centers on Nasim, an Afghan immigrant living in Tehran who is virtually forced to perform a circus sideshow-like endurance test in order to pay for his wife’s medical bills: he agrees to the scheme of a shady promoter to attempt to ride a bicycle continuously for a week. As Nasim rides in circles in the same town square night and day, a crowd of spectators mounts (including politicians, gamblers and the media), all of whom attempt to manipulate the poor man’s plight for their own benefit. This powerful allegory is not unlike Bresson’s Au Hasard, Balthazar in that a holy fool character serves as a blank slate upon which the sins of mankind are imprinted.

24. The Shining (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1980)

23. Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left for the East? (Bae, S. Korea, 1989)

22. The Asthenic Syndrome (Muratova, Russia, 1989)

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21. The Green Ray (Rohmer, France, 1986)

20. Time of the Gypsies (Kusturica, Yugoslavia, 1988)

19. Distant Voices, Still Lives (Davies, UK, 1988)

18. Sans Soleil (Marker, France, 1983)

17. The Road Warrior (Miller, Austraila, 1981)

George Miller’s 1981 action-movie masterpiece is the best and most influential of the post-apocalyptic Eighties trend. Even more impressive is the fact that he did it all on a relatively meager budget of $2,000,000 — with old-fashioned (i.e., “real”) stunts and exceedingly clever production design in which an assortment of 20th century detritus is reconfigured in surprising ways (e.g., punk rock fashions and S&M gear happily co-exist with pieces of athletic uniforms). The film is set in the future, when gasoline is an even more precious resource than it is today, and concerns a former cop (Mel Gibson, reprising his role from the non-post-apocalyptic Mad Max) helping a gasoline-rich colony fend off attacks by a gang of marauding bandits. The climactic action set-piece, a long chase involving many different types of vehicles barreling through the barren Australian outback, takes up most of the second-half and ranks as one of the most exhilarating such scenes ever captured on celluloid.

16. Blue Velvet (Lynch, USA, 1986)

15. Once Upon a Time in America (Leone, USA, 1984)

14. Blade Runner (Scott, USA, 1982)

13. Hail Mary (Godard, France, 1985)

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12. A Nos Amours (Pialat, France, 1983)

11. Mon Oncle d’Amerique (Resnais, France, 1980)

10. A City of Sadness (Hou, Taiwan, 1989)

9. Love Streams (Cassavetes, USA, 1984)

8. Vagabond (Varda, France, 1985)

7. Brightness (Cisse, Mali, 1987)

Perhaps my favorite African movie ever is Yeelen, a hypnotic, deliberately paced art film that has all of the deceptive simplicity, power and beauty of a primeval myth. Niankoro is a boy living in rural West Africa who must undergo various rites of passage in order to become a man, which culminates in challenging his evil sorcerer father in a duel to the death. Western critics are fond of invoking Oedipus Rex when reviewing writer/director Souleymane Cissé’s masterpiece but all of this film’s potent and elaborate symbolism is apparently based on local folklore and not influenced by outside sources.

6. Raging Bull (Scorsese, USA, 1980)

5. Come and See (Klimov, Russia, 1985)

4. Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder, Germany, 1980)

3. The Ballad of Narayama (Imamura, Japan, 1983)

2. The Decalogue (Kieslowski, Poland, 1988)

My opinion of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s monumental achievement — 10 one-hour movies that correspond to the 10 commandments, originally broadcast on Polish television — is inextricably bound to the circumstances under which I first saw it. I watched all 10 hours projected in 35mm, exhibited in two-hour installments a piece, while standing in the back of a movie theater that had sold out all of its screenings. As Stanley Kubrick noted, what may be most impressive about The Decalogue is the way Kieslowski and his collaborators were able to successfully dramatize ideas. It’s fun to think about how the individual episodes relate to the commandments: the first episode is a literal adaptation (a man puts his faith in the “false God” of technology — with tragic results) while others are more oblique (the “thou shall not commit adultery” episode is a tale of romantic obsession and voyeurism in which none of the characters are married). Kieslowski went on to even greater fame by subsequently making arthouse blockbusters in France (The Double Life of Veronique, the “Three Colors” trilogy) but The Decalogue easily remains my favorite of his movies.

1. L’argent (Bresson, France, 1983)

Robert Bresson’s swan song, as tight and compressed as a Ramones song, is a masterful update of Tolstoy’s short story The Forged Note. Bresson’s ingenious narrative follows a counterfeit bill, initially passed off in a shop as a schoolboy prank, which sets off a chain of events (an “avalanche of evil” in the director’s own indelible words) that ends with a young man murdering an entire family with an axe. This vital, rigorous movie, made when the director was 82 but seeming like the work of a much younger man, is the ultimate artistic statement about the destructive power of money.


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