Monday, February 21, 2011

Wundkanal and Our Nazi (1984)- FIlm Comment Selects -The at home edition

A few brief words on a pair of simultaneously made films, one a fiction film and one a documentary. Both are playing on February 28th as part of the Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center. They are billing the films as unavailable on DVD; however they are available from Germany from Edition Filmmuseum in a two DVD set for little bit more than admission to both plus the subway and train fare. I wanted to see them but I had to opt for the stay at home version because of other commitments on the night they are screening.

Wundkanal is about a the kidnapping of a Nazi war criminal, now part of the German Government, by a a group connected to the Red Army Faction (Baader Meinhof). The group interrogates the man about his life and past misdeeds and eventually gets him to confess. The conceit of the film is that the war criminal, is played by one, a man who was finally tried in 1962 and was in prison until 1975.

Our Nazi is a documentary about the making of the film.

To be perfectly honest the films require full reviews but I am not capable of doing that now. I could bang out something now a bit more detailed but that isn't fair simply because having seen both films I now know that I need to see them again. The two feed on each other; seeing one influences the other and seeing the second wants to make you see the first again. I need another four plus hours to go over the films again and I do not have the time to do so before the films screen at Lincoln Center next Monday. Some where in the future, hopefully in the spring, I'll devote two full reviews to the films, but for now let me give you a few thoughts on the two films.

Wundkanal will either strike you as hypnotic or incredibly dull. Its a film that is entirely focused on the man himself, we barely see anyone else. The dialog is mostly question and answers in a variety of languages about the terrible things done in the war and the character's ability to make people kill themselves. It's lots of talk and a drifting camera over the interrogation cell which is full of ephemera.

On some level I was intrigued, but after about a half an hour I started to get bored since it was clear it was very much one thing. I like the idea of the film but I found it kind of dull. Yes, the performance of Alfred Filbert, is amazing. Granted he's essentially playing himself (one of his alias' is his own name), but he's so natural, and in a way he's better than the material. Frankly had I seen this in the theater I would have walked out. Seeing it on DVD made it easier going since I could stop and start it. I should say I found the revelations of the war crimes intriguing but the film's insistence that our hero was also responsible for the death of the leadership of the Baader Meinhof Gang in prison is distracting (It's now known not to be possible and it sets the film too much in a set time and place).

Had I not had the DVD I would left it there and written the film off as an interesting but dull political tract and walked out of the theater before it was done ... and before I saw Our Nazi, which would have been a mistake and a big loss.

I should also point out that my interest in the film was raised by an extra on the DVD, a 33 minute interview with the director Thomas Harlan from 2007 where he talks about the film. To be certain he's a bit full of himself, but at the same time his retelling of what happens in the film puts things in context and it explains what the film is; which is something you don't get when you walk into the film blind. When I was done with this short piece I suddenly realized wait a second I need to see the film again. (Sadly this short piece is NOT being run at Lincoln Center which is a loss.)

After watching the pair of films on the first DVD I started Our Nazi, Robert Kramer's fascinating documentary about the making of Wundkanal. If you want to understand how terrible things happen because the people doing them are so nice no one suspects them, see this film.

This is the treasure of the pair. It's an in your face look at the filmmakers, their actor and the ideas that went into the film. 20 minutes in I was loving this warts and all look at the making of the unique feature. In it's way it's one of the best documentaries on a film I've seen since it's so intimate and so real and so in that space and time that you really feel like you are there. Its a film that enhances the the film it's about because it explains things you may not have gotten the first time out. I certainly appreciate Wundkanal more after seeing this film. As I watched it I realized that I really need to see Wundkanal again. (Grrr)

There is one HUGE problem though with Our Nazi, I suspect that unless you see Wundkanal first, much of what is going on will mean nothing to you. Basically Our Nazi plays out under the assumption that you know what they are talking about, and if you don't you're going to be lost.

Lincoln Center is screening the two films as separate admission features and in all honesty if you see one without the other you're going to be missing something. If you are interested try and see both, and even if you don't like the first film hang around for the second since that will improve the experience-even if you walk out of the first, hang around in the lobby and see the second one.

Are the films worth seeing? For adventurous film goers yes they are. I'm not going to lie and say that seeing them in the theater (especially the first film) is the way to go the first time. However since odds are this maybe your only shot to do so I think it's worth trying. There is going to be a discussion after Our Nazi which really makes me regret not going to see them in the theater, however I should be done with my commitment before that happens and if I'm in the mood, and I don't mind a late night, I think I might try and talk my way into sitting in on it.

Two intriguing films that will be getting further reviews down the line.

(One note about the Edition Filmmuseum DVDs: They are regionless and subtitled in English. However they are PAL not NTSC, so if your DVD player or TV can't play PAL or convert it you may want to pass on the DVDs)

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