By Nienke Huitenga
Amongst the various thematic ties that link film to film in this festival, the one that stands out for me most is music. Within the selection of films that I managed to attend, I have found three films that caught my attention for their portrayal of various German music-cultural scenes. Together as a group they diachronically represent three major moments in German music history: Clara, Hilde and Berlin Calling.
A film that refers to the hedonistic life of a specific music cult of my generation is Berlin Calling. Electronic music composer DJ Ickarus travels the world to play his music on festivals and in clubs, and eventually gets lured down the rabbit hole of drug addiction. In his hometown of Berlin he works on his new album, but the pressure of delivering the album he dreams of, paired with the temptation of drugs, initiates a downward spiral from which we wonder whether he will ever return. Watching this film, I was comfortably submerged in an ambient spectacle. Paul Kalkbrenner, in the role of DJ Ickarus, performed very au naturel although this is his acting debut, for in real life he is a fulltime musician like his character. Thanks to the flowy electronic music, the film is a nice ‘trip’ through the psychotic episodes of DJ Ickarus. However, without it, the story might come off too placid.
Next is Clara, a film by Helma Sanders-Brahms (a distant relative of Johannes Brahms) exposes the struggle Clara Schumann undergoes when her deep love and passion for music conflicts with her duties as wife to Robert Schumann. Young Johannes Brahms, who admires Clara’s talent, touches Clara with his brilliant and entrancing compositions. His charming personality brings him close to the family circle of the Schumann family. Robert Schumann respects him for his virtuoso compositions, and later, Clara finds herself torn between feelings for charming Johannes, and her duties to the care of the mental health of her husband.
Naturally, the film zones in on the music composed by Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, and these moments are by far the most powerful in the film. The art department and set design give the mise-en-scène a sense of historic truth, however, the characterizations by the actors feel a little beyond the historic period. Pascal Greggory, who plays Robert Schumann, looks a bit uncomfortable in the role of the German composer. It may partly be because, as a French actor, Greggory has to tackle the German language as well as the flamboyant character of Schumann. In fact, part of Greggory’s downfall is in his larger-than-life portrayal of his character, which brings colour to the film but lacks truth. As it happens, the film loses me on several occasions because of the strange camera angles, and jarring transitions. On the other hand, the film captivates me again in its calmer scenes where the pleasure, love and passion of Robert Schumann’s and Johannes Brahms’ compositions are given the time and focus that they deserve. I was both bored and moved watching this film, but in the end I loved it for the justice it did to the talent and artistry of these passionate musicians.
Hilde, my second favourite thus far, is a biopic about Germany’s multitalented Hildegard Knef, beginning with her youthful years. She fearlessly and cheekily auditions for an acting school (at age 14), and without hesitating exclaims that she has talent. Her determined spirit comes through in one of the songs she writes later on in her career – ‘Fur mich Soll’s Rote Rosen Regnen’ (It Shall Rain Red Roses for Me). She puts down her fist by singing ‘I want everything or nothing!’ It marks the persevering spirit she has in making her dreams come true. Hildegard shakes up 1950s Germany with the first nude scene in Die Sünderin (1951), and tries to make it in Hollywood as an actress in film productions by David Selznick, further signs of her strength and ambition.
For me, the phrases of song-text, rhythmically intercut at various moments of the film, reveal much about Hilde’s life journey. Set between different ‘chapters’ of her career, the poetic motif culminates in a full performance at the end of film. The songs we hear during the film act as commentary, shedding light not only on the atmosphere of her home, Berlin (‘Mein Zuhause’- My Home), but also on her state of mind, as she finds herself as an artist. The jazzy ‘best singer without a voice’ (as Ella Fitzgerald called her) is convincing when the film reaches the last chapter, where Heike Makatsch (Hilde) performs ‘Fur Mich Soll’s Rote Rosen Regnen’ both skilfully and seductively.