Wednesday, March 14, 2007

woes of nomenklatura clinch another german oscar

[a collection of german oscar winners (color) and nominees (black and white) as follows: “nowhere in africa,” “schtonk!”, “the tin drum,” “sophie scholl: the final days,” “jacob the liar,” “downfall,” “the lives of others,” “beyond silence”]

florian henckel von donnersmarck’s film “the lives of others,” a tale of the nomenklatura—those birds imprisoned in the gilted cages—again brings german film, deservedly, to the wider world audience. winning the 2007 oscar for best foreign-language film, is this poignant story of a stasi agent (ulrich muhe) who spies on a playwright (sebastian koch) and his live-in actress girlfriend (martina gedeck)—becoming enamored of their “artistic” lifestyle in the process. this more sinister representation of life in the ddr stands in contrast to the more comical, “ostalgie” peeks at the former communist dictatorship. an example of the latter genre is wolfgang becker’s “good bye lenin,” in which a loving son attempts to spare his true-believer mother the reality of her beloved “socialist” east germany’s downfall. he does this by transforming their apartment into a vestige of the ddr.

“sophie scholl: die letzen tage” (“sophie scholl: the final days”) was nominated for the “best foreign language film” academy award last year. this riveting drama focused on the apprehension and subsequent prosecution of the white rose resistance in nazi germany. it is with gratitude that i managed to attend the u.s. premiere of this rich film at moma’s kino festival. starring actress julia jentsch as sophie, the script drew from interviews with survivors and court transcripts that had escaped scrutiny in the bowels of the east german archives until 1990.

[for those who have not already seen it, “die letzten tage” is a most compelling film (as is the larger story of “weißerose”) for a host of reasons. in the darkest days of the nazi police state, “white rose” cut across lines of protestant and catholic and north and south in a country where—even today—lines of ossie v. wessie, protestant v. catholic, prussians v. other germans, and bavarians v. other germans are far from simple. that sophie herself had been in the the nazi bund deutscher mädel (league of german girls) and that the men of white rose—such as hans scholl, alex schmorell, willi graf, and christoph probst—were wehrmact veterans who witnessed horrible atrocities on the eastern front is interesting from a standpoint of their rejection of the fascism and militarism of the third reich that they had earlier embraced. as to regional differences or to that invisible “line” between protestant and catholic germany, an affluent bavarian character with a great car and clothes to match—playing on larger german perceptions of bavarians as pampered and myopic—can always garner a good laugh in german cinema. the latter was found in hans stöhr’s “berlin is in germany”—a wrenching look at one person’s cognitive dissonance in the face of reunification—which premiered at the 2001 berlinale. the wealthy bavarian woman character in a party scene (and mocked or tolerated by prussians present) belies complicated currents of identity below the surface).]

nominated for this award the year before “sophie …” was “downfall” (“der untergang”), a 2004 film piecing together the final days of adolf hitler and the third reich in the shell-consumed berlin in 1945 and set almost entirely in the bunker. losing to south africa’s “tsotsi,” “downfall” was written by bernd eichinger and directed by oliver hirschbiegel. a battery of sources contributed to the script, most notably historian joachim fest’s book “inside hitler’s bunker” and the respective memoirs of albert speer, hitler’s secretary traudl junge, and siegfried knappe.

garnering a 2002 academy award for best foreign language film was caroline link’s “nowhere in africa” (“nirgendwo in afrika”). based on stefanie zweig’s autobiographical novel, it captures the experience of a jewish family that emigrates to kenya to run a farm and escape the holocaust.

another caroline link film, the 1997 “beyond silence” (“jenseits der stille”) lost to the netherlands’ “character” (“karakter”) in the race for an oscar. a coming of age story about a hearing young woman named lara, whose parents are both deaf, she acts as their sole negotiator. torn between her feelings of love and responsibility to her parents on one hand—and her love of music on the other, she decides to go to berlin to attend a music conservatory and begin the painful process of leaving home.

“schtonk!: der film zum buch vom führer”—which lost out to the lush french production “indochine” in 1992—was a farcical take on the infamous hitler diaries hoax of 1983 when the german magazine “stern” published 60 volumes of adolf hitler’s alleged memoirs. two weeks later the diaries turned out to be fake. this satire about “one of the greatest failures of modern journalism” is a notable cinematic departure for german film in its humorous take on this angst-producing period of german history. “schtonk!” signaled an openness toward humor in german film in general, and not just in relation to the great discomfort of third reich era subject matter.

volker schlöndorff’s film adaptation of günter grass’s novel, “the tin drum” not only garnered the academy award for best foreign language film in 1979, but it also won the “palme d’or” at cannes at a time when the political fortunes of the cdu/csu eclipsed the activist sdp/fdp coalition government that had fostered “ostpolitik.” for americans, this film will forever be tied to an embarassing incident in oklahoma in which police confiscated a videotape of the movie in clear violation of constitutional protections—an action upheld by an incompetent court that “banned” the film. subsequently, a federal judge ruled that “the tin drum,” is protected by virtue of its artistic merit under oklahoma and u.s. law.

a year previous to triumph of “the tin drum, ” “the glass cell” (“die gläsene zelle”) lost to the french film, “get out your handkerchiefs” (“preparez vos mouchoirs”).

germany’s oscar nomination in 1976 “jacob the liar” (“jakob, der lügner”) came out of the german democratic republic—and was produced by privileged members of the ddr’s nomenklatura portrayed in this year’s victor “the lives of others.” this poignant tale about doomed jewish inmates in the lódź ghetto was based on the 1969 novel by jurek becker—garnering the author a heinrich-mann-prize in 1971. while “jacob” lost out to “black and white in color” (“noir et blancs en couleur”) from the côte d'ivoire, hollywood later released its own version in 1999 with robin williams playing the role of the jewish protagonist jakob heym.

the berlinale film festival:

german film website:

sophie scholl movie (english):

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