4th - 6th December 1998
Once again Tony Davison and his team have succeeded in making an intriguing, entertaining and enlightening weekend out of material which might, at first, have seemed daunting. The course dealt with Germany's rich history of cinema which extends from the Expressionist period to the 'National Minority cinema' of the 90s.
Cober Hill Conference Centre is on the Yorkshire coast a few miles north of Scarborough. A fine old house combined with a modern purpose-built conference centre, gardens, tennis court and play area makes up the centre. It is situated on a bluff less than half a mile from the cliffs and the sea. Pleasant bracing walks are available in all directions. The main film programme takes place in the conference centre hall which is large enough to accomodate all the delegates in very comfortable arm chairs and high enough to allow easy sight-lines to a large screen. Presentations there are on 16mm. A comfortable lounge offers a cosier space for small group viewing of rare 8mm or video material.
An unseasonably early burst of snow coated the gardens with almost four inches of light, fluffy snow over the weekend. This discouraged long walks but then so did the tightly scheduled film programme.
We began with a new print of Die Dreigroschenoper G.W.Pabst's 1931 film was written by Berthold Brecht as an adaptation of Gay's The Beggar's Opera. Kurt Weill wrote the music and Lotte Lenya starred. Predictably Brecht disliked the film and audiences loved it. From our point of view it was intriguing as being the first of several films set in London which clearly had some romantic association for early German film makers. The film's tale of the troubled marriage between gangster Mack the Knife and the daughter of the King of the Beggars is quickly subsumed in messages about the class system which climaxes when 300 beggars manage to stop a coronation procession.
This was followed by another didactic piece based on a screenplay by Brecht, (directed by S. Dudow in 1932). This sets a romance against the plight of the German proletariat. A worker's sports association appears to offer a means towards politicising the masses. Filmically the interest is in the quasi-documentary style of the piece which gives it great power.
On Saturday came the refreshing delight of Viktor Und Viktoria (R.Schunzel, 1933) which had all the zest, charm and sophistication of the best Hollywood screwball comedies. It too was mainly set in an oddly Germanic London. A charming young woman who wants to become a theatre star becomes involved with a transvestite actor, takes his place on the stage and becomes a woman playing a man who is playing a woman. The plot is fluffy nonsense but carried off by the exuberance of the players. The young woman (whose name I regret missing on the credits) bore a striking resemblance to the young Kathleen Turner.
This was followed by Yasemin (H.Bohm, 1988) a powerful and touching film about teenage romance ... when the girl is part of the Turkish community in Germany, a community struggling to retain its traditions against the pressures of contemporary European society. What makes this more than the usual cross-cultural romantic trouble story is first its telling from the point of view of the teenagers (it is based on real life diaries) and second its exploration of the strains and hypocrisies within the ethnic minority culture.
In the afternoon came the film which divided delegates more than any other: Die Drei Von Der Tankstelle (The Three Guys from The Filing Station) directed by W. Thiele in 1930. This was a nonsensical tale of three rich young men who return from a fling to find their bank bust and themselves bankrupt. On a whim they decide to sell their car and start a petrol station. Then a lovely society girl comes along, plays them off against each other and causes mayhem before the happy ending. There was very clever use of sound ... amazing when you consider the year it was made and the film was reported a hit on release until banned by the Nazis. The sticking point for the majority of the audience was that the three "upper class twits" broke into song (pretty well always the same song) in close harmony every few minutes and felt compelled to dance around in a manner which just avoided being camp by being childish. It was followed by an acknowledged classic Der Blaue Engel (J. von Sternberg, 1930). Marlene Dietrich spent most of the time looking superior while showing off her legs and an assortment of frilly knickers. Emil Jannings in a more restrained performance than usual was the respectable schoolmaster who falls under her spell. Alan Foale's programme notes include a comment from Dietrich: "At the time I thought the film was awful and vulgar and I was shocked by the whole thing. Remember, I was a well brought up German girl."
Yasemin was the first great "find" for contemporary film societies. In the evening came the second: Nach Funf im Urwald (It's A Jungle Out There) directed by H.C. Schmid, 1995. The original title comes from an old joke whose punch line almost ends the movie ... and I will not spoil it here. The 17 year-old daughter of a politician aspiring to become mayor has a birthday party which gets out of hand, is grounded and refused permission to audition for a part in an advertising film. She runs away to Munich, tries for the audition and has various adventures in the city. She is always on the point where things could go smoothly or go horribly wrong. Meanwhile her parents get together with another couple whose son has also run away. Gradually they get drunk together, smoke some dope they find in the girl's room and become just as irresponsible as their daughter had been. There is an incident with a rabbit which will make you ache with laughter. The story has a happy, but credible ending. Best of all the narrative is outlined by her little sister Klara whose wide-eyed seriousness makes her diary entries fascinating and almost always completely wrong! This should be on every film society's short list for next season.
After that we had Lilli Marlene (directed by R.W. Fassbinder in 1980). Based round the use of the song by the Nazis during World War II it seems more self-indulgent and less powerful now than it did when first seen.in the eighties.
On Sunday morning were two classics: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (R.Wiene, 1919) in an excellent print which did justice to the surreal sets which makes this film timeless. Followed by Pandora's Box (G.W.Pabst, 1928) starring the lovely Louise Brooks, set in London at the time of Jack the Ripper. In the afternoon came Die Austernprinzessin (E.Lubitch, 1919) which satirises the craze for all things American post WW I. And finally Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog's 1982 film) about the eccentric Irishman who builds an opera house in the middle of a jungle.
All in all a superb weekend at a bargain price.
- Dave Watterson