The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon feels and looks like a return to an earlier era of European cinema. From a visual and narrative standpoint, the film recalls the work of Bergman and Tarkovsky in the 1960s and 1970s, and much of its power comes from its recourse techniques of these masters.

The use of black and white,  the juxtaposition of claustrophobic interiors against the vast open plains of northern Europe and the fine-grained focus on characters faces are a  hommage to Sven Nykvist, the cinematographer for many of Bergman’s films and for the last act of Tarkovsky’s career (The Sacrifice, 1986). Indeed, Haneke’s cameraman Christian Berger studied Nykvist’s work in preparation for filming The White Ribbon.

While it could be argued that Tarkovsky and Bergman used film to explore psychological or spiritual themes, The White Ribbon is by contrast a tale of sociology and politics.

To take just one example, the severe Protestant pastors in Bergman’s works serve to lay bare the impossibility of belief in God, whereas in The White Ribbon, the pastor (alongside the village baron and the doctor) is portrayed as the agent of a sick society where absolute truths are used to dominate through fear.

Haneke has been quite explicit about the message of his film. He claims it as an exploration of the origins of terrorism in all its forms. Haneke’s village of Eichwald is haunted by repression, abuse and violence of all imaginable varieties. It’s matrix of sadism, deliberate and unintentional, in which children and adults alike are victims and participants.

Ostensibly The White Ribbon is a film about Germany. By setting this story in 1913 and 1914, the viewer knows that the children in this film are the generation who will, as adults, oversee the rise of Nazism twenty years later. Just as the feudalism of Eichwald dissolves in paroxysms of fear and recrimination, so the seeds are sown for new forms of control and repression that will follow.

Hannah Arendt invented the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe how easily violence and tyranny can become a commonplace among men. With The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke has provided us a sharply-focused (and, yes, beautiful) vision of Arendt’s words come to life.

European Communism: my part in its downfall

Today, there’s plenty being written elsewhere about the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I’ll leave all that for better-informed and better writers to get busy with, and just stick to some of my own memories.

Potsdamerplatz, Berlin

In April 1989, when my family booked tickets to fly to England and Europe the following November, we had no idea that we would arrive in time to celebrate the fall of communism. My English grandfather had just had a stroke, and the long NZ summer holidays of December/January offered the last chance that the family could travel to visit him while I was still a child airfare.

My sister and I, who had never been overseas before, spent an excited few months preparing for the trip: reading up about the sights of London, learning little phrases in German and poring over Mum’s Collins University Atlas, tracing train routes that would take us through unknown countries called France, Holland and Switzerland.

After Christmas in England, we crossed the Channel in the dead of winter and by way of Oostend and Amsterdam, found ourselves in Germany to visit Mum’s old friends in the Ruhr valley. The Wall had been down less than two months at that point, but the ripples of the fall seemed evident everywhere we went: the trains were stuffed full of East Germans, perhaps visiting family or simply enjoying spending Christmas in the West for the first time.

GDR-era Mural, Federal Finance Building

The Silvesternacht we spent in Germany was one I’ll never forget… we kids were allowed to let off fireworks across the cul-de-sac, drink sekt and participate in the inexplicably German tradition of Bleigießen. At midnight we gathered around the television, watching crowds of East and West Germans celebrating together at the Brandenburg Gate.

A piece of history arrived, quite literally, a couple of days later: a package arrived at the door, containing lumps of asbestos-laden concrete. The brother of Mum’s German friend was in Berlin, and had hacked off enough pieces of the wall so that we New Zealanders would have something to take home with us.

The Reichstag Dome

That trip to Europe happened at an impressionable age, and probably sparked my ongoing interest and love of that continent. We played in the snow on the Jungfrau; I chased my sister around borderstones on the frontier of France and Switzerland; and when on a cold January morning 1990 we stared up into the mist on the Champs de Mars to try and spy the top of the Eiffel Tower that was missing in the gloom, I had little idea that twenty years later I would be able to speak French and live in Paris.

In their wisdom, our parents made me and my sister write a diary during our trip. So I can still read what I thought at the time (I was mostly interested in playing with Lego and running around borderstones). And I still have that piece of the Berlin Wall, although it’s currently sitting in storage in Birmingham.

So, just like Nicolas Sarkozy, I was not in Berlin on the 9th of November, 1989. But as a young kid, I did manage to be in Europe right at the end of the 1980s. Ride on Time by Black Box was top of the pops, and it felt like the wheel of history was turning.

Coke ad in East Berlin

(All photos in this post were taken during my March 2008 trip to Berlin)

Looking for nazis, finding turkeys

At the end of the late screening of Inglourious Basterds on Wednesday night, the cinema erupted into applause. Now, maybe it’s a strange French custom that I hadn’t come across before, or perhaps the room happened to be full of rabid mordus de Tarantino that evening. But quite simply, the film didn’t deserve it.


Diane Kruger contemplates the flammable possibilities of nitrate filmstock

First of all, I’m not going to criticise Inglourious Basterds for being ahistorical.  The film is set in a fairy tale world that happens to bear a very passing resemblence to occupied France. It’s a little like watching Hogans Heroes and ‘Allo ‘Allo simultaneously, but with gruesome screen violence added in. I can accept this -because  if you’re incapable of suspending disbelief during a Tarantino flick, then don’t bother watching.

But Inglourious Basterds simply makes very little sense as a story. Tarantino is a master of slick and innovative narrative. But this film shambles along in overly long and occasionally irrelevant episodes, linked by massive leaps of logic that are neither explained nor plausible (yes, you can place your story inside an ultraviolent comic-book, but the story still needs to fit together).

Brad Pitt should be scalped for his performance, although the script gives him very little to work with. In fact, the script is mostly lumpen, although there is some post-modern fun to be had with  dialogue that transitions glibly between German, English and French (and occasionally Italian – providing Pitt’s only golden moment).

There some bright spots – a couple of scenes remind us of the tension and black humour of which Tarantino is capable. And the show is stolen by the European actors – Christoph Waltz struts around as a zealous and slightly camp jew-hunting Nazi, and Mélanie “Standing In for Uma” Laurent plays a convincing French-Jewish maiden bent on revenge.

War Films 101: A British officer in a German uniform is just asking for trouble…

Mr Tarantino is lumbered with a reputation based on his classic early films,  setting a high standard that is hard to live up to.  He is a genius – growing up in the 90s, I had to sneak in underage to see Pulp Fiction, the one totemic film of my teenagehood. And I had a Reservoir Dogs poster on my bedroom wall for many years (thanks Cameron!).

With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino may have been trying to make a grand statement about cinema, fiction and history (the climactic scene certainly suggests so, as does Philip French). Tarantino doesn’t completely fail, but most of the time it seems like he’s just made an occasionally diverting film full of silly accents.


Yeah, you see, I told you so…

Nazi Rules for Dance Bands


Hitler (front row) enjoying Wagner played by the Leipzig Philharmonic

I am informed that the following “rules for dance bands” are genuine, and feature in Josef Škvoreckỳ‘s 1967 novella The Bass Saxophone. Rather than being rules promulgated right across the Reich, it seems likely they were local regulations introduced by the local Gauleiter in occupied Czecheslovakia. Each of the rules is rather amusing in its own way…

1. In the repertoire of light orchestras and dance bands, pieces in fox-trot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20%;

2. In the repertoire of this so-called jazz type, preference is to be given to compositions in a major key and to lyrics expressing joy in life (‘Kraft durch Freude’), rather than Jewishly gloomy lyrics;

3. As to the tempo, too, preference is to be given to brisk compositions as opposed to slow ones (so-called blues) however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro commensurate with the Aryan sense for discipline and moderation. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) be permitted, or in solo performances (so-called breaks);

4. So-called jazz compositions may contain at the most 10% syncopation; the remainder must form a natural legato movement devoid of hysterical rhythmic references characteristic of the music of the barbarian races and conducive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called ‘riffs’);

5. Strictly forbidden is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit (e.g. so-called cowbells, flex-a-tone, brushes, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of brass-wind instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yell (so-called wa-wa, in hat, etc.);

6. Prohibited are so-called drum breaks longer than half a bar in four quarter beat (except in stylized military marches);

7. The double bass must be played solely with the bow in so-called jazz compositions; plucking of strings is prohibited, since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan musicality. If a so-called pizzicato effect is absolutely desirable for the character of the composition, let strict care be taken lest the string is allowed to patter on the sordine, which is henceforth forbidden;

8. Provocative rising to one’s feet during solo performance is forbidden;

9. Musicians are likewise forbidden to make vocal improvisations (so-called scat);

10. All light orchestras and dance bands are advised to restrict the use of saxophones of all keys and to substitute for them violin-celli, violas, or possibly a suitable folk instrument.

Berlin

Anton Bruckner – Symphonie No. 6: III. Scherzo. Nicht schnell (Excerpt)
Performed by the Deutches Symphonie Orchester/Kent Nagano [Buy] [emusic]

Wurst

I think I have a new favourite city. OK, I was only in Berlin for five days, three of them locked in a conference, but a free weekend offered the chance to have a little look around. What an amazing place.

Leipzigerplatz

The history of of the city, Prussia and Germany linger in layers everywhere – remnants of the communist Wall, graffiti left by Soviet soldiers in 1945, the grand imperial avenues of Frederick the Great.

The brand-new skyscrapers of Potsdamer Platz show how urban planning, art and architecture should work together, glistening as if freshly unwrapped. There’s a great leap forward going on in Berlin and you can sense the momentum in the air.

Still in some faded corners there are glimpses of how grim life could be in the GDR: the clattering S-Bahn station at Ostkreuz or the monotone apartments lining the Köpernickerstraße. Berlin is grungy, practical, passionate, surely the soul capital of Europe.

Berlin

Earth, Wind and Fire were playing Berlin on Saturday night, but during a public transport strike the trip out to the Arena seemed a little too much hassle. A much more convenient (and cheaper) option was the Konzerthausorchester Berlin at the in the Gendarmenmarkt. An all-Germanic evening of Schubert 3, Bruckner 6 and a diaphonous cello concerto by Bernd Alois Zimmermann featuring Celeste and glass harp.

The concert wasn’t quite Mahler’s 8th at the Palais Omnisports de Bercy, (klari je suis jaloux moi), but the restored 19th century Konzerthaus, all chandeliers and marble busts of Schumann and Bach, was the perfect setting for getting back in the symphonic groove.

Schiller

So, just enough time to scratch the surface… wandered around a lot, ate currywurst from an imbiss, climbed Richard Roger’s Reichstag dome. There was no time left for the Jüdisches Museum or most of West Berlin, and the Maerzmusik Festival concerts had to be missed: I guess I’ll just have to go back sometime.

DnB1: Megashira

If you, like me, were in your late teens or twenties and living in an OECD economy in the middle of 1990s, you probably had some kind of experience with “drum and bass”. Or “jungle”, whatever. It may have been a flirtation, an annoyance, or in my case, a short-term relationship. For a few years, this underground dance genre became disconcertingly mainstream, before submerging again to continue development in the darker alleys of 21st Century club culture.

I can accurately locate the start of my relationship with drum and bass to a time and date, and a single track: the evening of March 25th, 1997, on Stinky Jim’s radio show on 95 bFM. Visiting UK DJ A-Sides dropped Mental Strength by Megashira. 4 minutes and 56 second of Miles-inspired trumpet hook rising over a clattering tech break. Industrial jazz. It was compelling.

Megashira – Mental Strength
From Zero Hour: INFRACom! IC 026-2 [Buy]

Megashira was a German production duo, consisting of DJ Kabuki and Mainframe. Their 1997 album Zero Hour had the distinction of being the first full-length drum and bass album produced in Germany, and bore the sonic influence of DJ Kabuki’s time working in Tokyo. Megashira released a follow-up in 2001 called At Last, (I haven’t heard it), which has a couple of kiwi connections in the form of keyboardist Mark de Clive-Lowe and drummer Nick Gaffaney.


Megashira: German, apparently

Klaus Doldinger: Die Blues auf Deutsch

NDR Jazz Workshop Band – Waltz of the Jive Cats
Etta James and Friends – Stormy Monday Blues
From Doldinger’s Best: ACT9224-2 [Buy]

Born in Berlin, German musician Klaus Doldinger is probably best known for his “fusion” (what a yucky term) band Passport, which has been operating since 1971, and for his film scores for Das Boot and The Neverending Story/Die Unendliche Geschichte. Perhaps he is the polar opposite of his fellow countryman and reedman Peter Brötzmann?

Here he is blowing his way to a frenzy on his instrument of choice – firstly on his own composition Waltz of the Jive Cats with a German radio band featuring Johnny Griffin, Donald Byrd and the late Nils Henning Øersted-Pedersen (among others…) in 1964.

And then a live recording from the 1977 Montreux Jazz Festival, with Etta James, David Newman (ss), Herbie Mann (fl), Brian Ray (g), Jeff Berlin (b), Richard Tee (p) and Steve Jordan (d).

Paul Brody – Turning Turtle

Paul Brody Octet – Caravan
Paul Brody Octet – Lament
From Turtle Paradise: 99 Records 2133 [Buy Here – if you can]

Jazz-fusion gypsy music from Berlin with a pants-wettingly great horn section who sound like they’re having the best party of their life? Try these couple of choice tracks from trumpeter Paul Brody’s 1995 album Turtle Paradise.

Caravan is just a complete gas, and the Lament is quite possibly the most perfectly mis-named composition I know! I’ve already posted about Paul Brody so if you want some more info on him, look here. And good luck trying to find this CD for sale anywhere 🙂

Worth a visit: Baby Snakes, an mp3 blog masquerading as a bulletin board, with a nice Frank Zappa 101 lecture – informative both for committed Mammy Nuns and still-clueless Gregory Peccaries.

Paul Brody

I was first turned onto Mr Paul Brody in about 1996 when I heard his German Octet’s version of Caravan on 95bFM‘s Sunday jazz show – it’s a complete blast from the first trombone eruption through to the rollicking end with Van Halen guitar lead and a shitload of close horn harmonies. Several months later I accidentally fell across the album Turtle Paradise in a record shop in Auckland – my student income managed to stretch to the $40.00 required to purchase. And now as far as I can tell, this CD is really hard to find, even on the web.

Humour, great drumming from Bob Moses, overexposed baritone sax parts. It’s a complete masterpiece.

This US- born trumpet player is based in Berlin and is very much doing his own thing, today exploring the outer reaches of jewish folk music and other exciting stuff that you probably can’t do very easily in America. MP3 snippets of the lovely noise of his DetoNation Orchestra (from the album Animals and Cowboys) can be found on the web:

Groundhog
16 Tons