May 24, 2010

World on a Wire (1973)

West Germany

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

205 min

Fassbinder is most widely known as the prolific director of Sirkian melodramas that exposed the moral hypocrisy at the core of West German society in the post-war years, whether it’s the critique of Adenauer’s ‘economic miracle’ in ‘The Marriage of Maria von Braun’ (1979) or racial and generation divisions in ‘Fear Eats the Soul’ (1974). Fassbinder held an uncomfortable mirror to a country that had at least on the surface or in its own collective consciousness, had laid the ghosts of Nazi Germany to rest. Fassbinder reminded it however, that this ‘success’ was illusory and where it had been achieved, it had come at a price.

If Fassbinder’s reputation rests on these films, then this means that several others he directed that didn’t overtly address social, economic and political issues, could easily be unfairly overlooked. ‘World on a Wire’ is such a film. Certainly in the Fassbinder canon, it stands out as an oddity. Made for German television during one of his most personally creative periods (‘Fear Eats the Soul’ and ‘Effi Briest’ almost immediately followed), it’s an adaptation of the science fiction novel ‘Simulacron-3’ by the American writer Daniel F. Galouye. Although Fassbinder personally adapted the novel, one wonders whether it was his original idea to make this film. Given what we know of his prior and subsequent career, science fiction appears a strange direction, though Fassbinder might have seen it as an opportunity to wrongfoot his audience and critics and to demonstrate his versatility.

In a convoluted narrative that really needs to be followed closely in order to appreciate precisely what’s going on, the IKZ cybernetics institute has developed a simulation programme that features thousands of ‘identity units’ living as human beings, thinking they’re human beings, acquiring memory and consciences. Corporate paranoia and intrigue manifests itself in betrayal and murder, though we’re constantly asked to consider what we see; whether this is the real or simulated world, or whether indeed, there’s more than one level of simulation. Although this scenario sounds familiar to modern audiences; there’s parallels with The Matrix series of films, and Galouye’s novel was filmed in 1999 as ‘The Thirteenth Floor’, Fassbinder has a different emphasis from the traditional set up of science fiction films. He eschews any interest in action sequences, which are kept to a minimum. Instead, ‘World on a Wire’ is more of an intellectual and philosophical film, discussing the theories of Plato and Zeno amongst others. Fassbinder often employs his camera urgently (courtesy of his cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, now Martin Scorsese’s DoP of choice) and the set design keeps the film rooted in the contemporary (e.g. 1970s) style rather than suggesting a more optimistic aesthetic of the future. His usual acting stock participate. All these elements taken together suggest therefore that Fassbinder had more of a personal investment in this film that one might initially imagine. It features numerous hallmarks of the classic Fassbinder film and style.

‘World on a Wire’ had been unavailable almost since its original transmission. It had never been broadcast in cinemas and had only been shown on German television on a few occasions. Thanks to Second Sight, an important moment in Fassbinder’s film making career has been restored and is now ripe for rediscovery.

‘World on a Wire’ is released by Second Sight films on 17 May 2010


April 2, 2009

The Sweet Hereafter (1997)


Director: Atom Egoyan

112 min


‘The Sweet Hereafter’ features a non-linear narrative, including flashbacks. In a small Canadian town, the present day. Mitchell Stevens, a slick lawyer, is called by his estranged daughter Zoe. He questions why she’s calling and tells her he doesn’t even know who she is anymore. Stevens visits a town that recently suffered the death of many of its children in a bus crash. The grieving parents are approached by Stevens, who offers to represent them to find answers, sue whoever’s responsible and obtain a large cash settlement. Although initially reluctant to pursue a legal case, Stevens visits each family in turn to persuade them to do so as the best means of coping with their grief, although one bereaved father, Billy, resists and asks Stevens to leave the community alone.

Stevens’ case rests on the testimony of 15 year old Nicole, who was seated at the front of the bus when it crashed and is now paralysed. However she accuses Dolores, the school bus driver, of driving over the speed limit, therefore causing the accident. Although Stevens and the community know she’s lying, only her father knows the reason why but he cannot say. The case collapses because of her testimony.


A multiple prize winner at Cannes (as well as the recipient of two Academy Award nominations), ‘The Sweet Hereafter’ was Egoyan’s first attempt at a mainstream picture and the first adaptation he’d made from external material, following a series of low-budget, personal films. Relocating the Russell Banks’ novel’s original setting to rural Canada, he remains otherwise faithful to the narrative, although he’s more coy about certain plot developments from the novel to allow us to make assumptions about relationships between characters and what has taken place in the past.

For instance, Banks is quite unequivocal about the incestuous abuse against Nicole by her father. Egoyan merely hints rather subtly. The first instance we see the pair together, we might easily mistake them for lovers. There’s an age gap for sure, though her father has a youthful appearance and their body language suggests something more than just a father-daughter relationship. Nicole’s sudden utterance of the word “Daddy” changes everything. This is almost the complete opposite of what happens in ‘Exotica’, when the relationship between Francis and Christina initially seemed paedophilic but actually had a more tragic and innocent dimension. It’s one of many ways in which Egoyan keeps us guessing. However, this is in keeping generally with Egoyan’s teasing approach to film making.

Like his previous ‘Exotica’,┬áthe narrative here is fractured and non-linear, told through the perspectives of Stevens, Dolores, Billy and Nicole – the latter three describing their accounts of what caused the crash, although it’s the failure of the three of them to gain a consensus that makes any legal action ultimately futile. Events occur out of sequence and what we think we see in certain scenes only becomes clear later on when other information is given. It never feels as if Egoyan’s repeating a technique used in previous films for its own sake. It’s no gimmick. Much like with ‘Exotica’, ‘The Sweet Hereafter’ deals with the aftermath of tragedy and how those involved come to terms with it. The grieving process, which involves memory and recollection in order to make sense of what’s happened, is best served by Egoyan’s non-linear approach.

Motivation has always been an important feature of Egoyan’s work; why people behave the way they do. Take Mitchell Stevens. Why does he offer his services for the case? Although he announces his fee, one third of anything won, he doesn’t appear to be financially motivated. He’s not your standard Hollywood lawyer, searching for redemption after a professional career wasted. We see flashbacks to his turbulent relationship with his daughter, a homeless drug addict who claims she’s HIV positive, but it’s the flashback of the younger Stevens that is crucial – when Zoe almost died as an infant. Whether Zoe knows about the incident herself or not, it’s evident that Stevens is storing a huge amount of guilt about her near-escape from death and also at being unable to stop her going off the rails as an adult – but then Egoyan never clarifies how this happened. Maybe it’s unimportant. Stevens has lost his own child so perhaps he can empathise with the community who’ve lost theirs, but of course they don’t know this.

Egoyan indicates however that ultimately Stevens’ presence isn’t good for the facade of the community and that the promise of money won’t compensate for their loss and will only re-open old wounds. Stevens first visits the owners of a local motel who seem to have nothing good to say about anyone, although the irony is that the wife is secretly conducting an affair with Billy. There are numerous intrigues within the small town; each interviewee that Stevens meets had a point to score against someone. The big secret of course, of child abuse, cannot be told. If there is nothing that Nicole can do about this, especially now that she is paralysed and dependent on her parents (note how ominously her father asks her to “not try to remember” when she leaves hospital as if other memories might be suppressed), then she can scupper the chance of a large financial payout. That’s the best revenge she’s able to claim. Even to the end, with the accident underplayed and shown in such a matter of fact fashioned, the truth is never clear as to what really happened, although Egoyan’s devotion to withholding the truth from his audience is now his stock in trade.

‘The Sweet Hereafter’ is justly referred to as one of the finest films of the 1990s and demonstrates that Egoyan can adapt his standard themes and cinematic techniques within a more conventional, mainstream (if still low budget) framework. He brilliantly captures the communal grief of a small community, yet reveals the cracks beneath the surface and realises that gaining any kind of closure on the accident might threaten to expose what’s really there. The recurring theme of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, read by Nicole to Billy’s children in scenes prior to the accident are intriguing; do they refer to the impending loss of the children or the arrival of Stevens to save the town? It’s just one of many unexplained questions in this mature, highly successful film.

March 31, 2009

The Damned United (2009)


Director: Tom Hooper

97 min


Derby County and Leeds United, 1967-1974. In 1974, Leeds United are the best football club in England, but their manager, Don Revie, resigns to become coach of the England national team. Brian Clough, previously manager of Derby County, Leeds United’s biggest rivals, accepts the job as manager of Leeds, but performs an interview on Yorkshire Television first. The Leeds United players watch his arrival, unimpressed. Six years previously, Derby County were bottom of Division Two and hired Brian Clough as manager and Peter Taylor as his assistant. They play Leeds United in the FA Cup and are thrashed. Don Revie doesn’t shake Clough’s hand, which inspires a ruthless ambition in Clough. Bypassing the chairman to sign new players, Derby County quickly rise the table, winning Division Two in 1969.

Back in 1974, Clough’s first address to the players is about how they must change and how they only succeeded through cheating and bad sportsmanship. Clough is deliberately fouled when participating in a practice match with his new players. In 1972, Derby County won their first Division One title under Clough, including a nailbiting 2-1 victory over Leeds United. During the 1974 Charity Shield, Leeds United’s aggressive tactics are worse than ever, with captain Billy Bremner sent off for fighting and later suspended. Clough asks former assistant Peter Taylor to join him, but he refuses. In the 1974-1974 season, Derby County lose an aggressive match against Leeds United before losing to Juventus in the European Cup. Clough threatens to resign, claiming to be unable to work with the present chairman. His resignation is accepted, much to his disbelief. Clough and Taylor are offered the managerial post at Brighton and Hove Albion, a struggling club, but before they accept, Leeds United come in. Taylor stays with Brighton. The Leeds United board sack Clough after 44 days after player protests. Clough re-establishes with relationship with Taylor.


Adapting the 2006 novel by David Peace was always going to be a struggle. It was controversial because it took established facts about Clough and his tenure at both Derby County and Leeds United and fictionalised an account of what might have otherwise happened. The Clough family distanced themselves from the novel, claiming it misrepresented him, whilst Johnny Giles, who was claimed to have been one of the instigators of Clough’s dismissal, successfully sued the publishers. Although the novel has been acclaimed as one of the finest sports novels of recent years, given the criticism of various inaccuracies, the makers of ‘The Damned United’ would naturally find it impossible to adapt the novel almost to the letter. Instead, the film is a much kinder and more moving tribute to the manager many claim was the greatest the English national team never had, and focuses more on his often turbulent relationship with Peter Taylor, who both realise that they can’t work without each other, which lends the relationship a faint homoerotic charge.

Gone are the intense, bile-filled, alcohol-fuelled, internal monologues that emphasised Clough’s loathing of Leeds United and Don Revie. These work better in fiction than on screen of course, but were one of the more contentious elements of the novel. Hooper and screenwriter Peter Morgan, who has made fictionalising factual events his stock in trade, retain the deep rooted sense of Clough’s ambition to overtake Leeds United and subsequently change them, which originated during the early years of Clough’s tenure at Derby County. This scene plays almost as farce initially. Clough reveres the achievements of the club and manager and repaints the dressing rooms, lays out towels, half-time oranges and ashtrays as a means of impressing, as well as buying an expensive bottle of wine for a post-match drink. The dynamic of the scene changes completely when Revie snubs Clough, shaking Taylor’s hand instead, thinking he is the manager. It’s a narrow tightrope that the film walks sometimes. The extent of Clough’s ambition and his talents as a manager are well evident, but the film increases the comic element that aspects of the novel only hinted it. The tone of the film has been carefully amended and not unsuccessfully, although one feels that removing Clough’s internal monologues completely make us understand the man less, although we understand the reasons why.

Peace has become established as a chronicler of Yorkshire life in the 1970s, not just because of ‘The Damned United’, but also the Red Riding series of novels that were recent adapted for British television. The general aesthetic of the film reflects the sombre atmosphere at the heart of the country at the time; when the Derby County players meet at Clough’s house to discuss a player protest after his dismissal, there’s a sudden power cut. Camera filters reflect the stereotypical blue-greys of the Yorkshire skyline. There’s an observant eye for period detail and for the specific football era, but it manages not to descend into nostalgia; a love of a bygone era in comparison to today’s oversaturated game. As Clough remarks to his Derby County chairman, “football’s all about money these days”. Same as it ever was, then.

As you’d expect, Michael Sheen nails Clough’s speech patterns and mannerisms, although such is our knowledge of him playing famous figures, we’re not surprised. Instead, the most effective acting performances are arguably from Timothy Spall as Taylor, a devoted assistant, and to whom the film allows a great deal of credit for Clough’s success (just watch the slightly ludicrous but amusing grovelling that Clough has to make at the end of the film), and Colm Meaney as Don Revie, a gruff but paternal man who grew up on the same streets as Clough. Revie and Clough were like chalk and cheese, hence why Revie could succeed at Leeds United, whilst Clough couldn’t. Why Clough was unable to realise that, we’re never quite sure. Too blinded by ambition perhaps?

‘The Damned United’ is that rare thing; an interesting football film. This is because the film makers haven’t attempted too much to simulate any football action. Only Sheen, a talented player in his youth, is afforded any real time on the ball during training sessions (and was another means of antagonising the players at Leeds United). Instead, this is a football film that takes place in the board rooms and dressing rooms; it’s about politics and personalities, not what occurs on the field. It’s all clearly aimed at a certain male demographic, and one wonders whether it might appeal to audiences outside of the UK, who might not have heard of Clough. Still, Sheen and Morgan are recognised names after ‘The Deal’, ‘The Queen’ and ‘Frost/Nixon’, so who knows?

December 10, 2008

The Story of Sin

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 12:53 am
Tags: , , ,


Director: Walerian Borowczyk

130 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Poland, the nineteenth century. Eva, a teenage girl, takes confession. The priest warns of impure thoughts and giving into lust and sin. Her family take in a young man, Lukash, as a lodger and soon they fall in love. Lukash is married, and since he is unable to acquire a divorce, he and Eva live in sin and Eva is disowned by her family. When Lukash leaves for Rome, Eva falls pregnant. She drowns her newborn child. Count Szczerbic, who wounded Lukash in a duel, tells Eva that Lukash is in prison in Rome, but when she tracks him down, he has been released and deported. Lukash remarries, believing that Eva has began a relationship with Szczerbic. Eva then conspires with two conmen to take revenge on Szczerbic, who Eva believes is responsible for Lukash’s absence in her life. She poisons him as they make love. Eva then becomes a prostitute back in Poland, but is rescued by a kindly gentleman who offers her work. However, the two conmen return, using her to lure Lukash. As she warns Lukash that the conmen intend to kill him, she is shot dead.


The late Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk has two very different reputations. First, he is considered one of the most influential and acclaimed animators of the post-war era, spoken of in similarly reverential tones to the likes of Jan Svankmajer. Second, and most notable, he is considered a director of softcore pornographic films with artistic ambitions. Borowczyk’s career perhaps changed forever in 1975, the year he directed ‘The Story of Sin’ but also his most notorious film ‘The Beast’. These two films could not be any more different. ‘The Story of Sin’ has adult themes and features nudity, but with reason and justification. ‘The Beast’ on the other hand aspires to be a Bunuelian satire on class vanity and ambition, but this is a pretty specious definition at best. Its crude simulation of bestiality is more comic than erotic but nevertheless the censors took action. Borowczyk’s career sharply declined, culminating in the indignity of making the fifth instalment of the Emmanuelle franchise. Reassessing earlier films such as ‘The Story of Sin’ would rehabilitate Borowczyk’s reputation; despite being made in the same year as ‘The Beast’, it is a significantly more interesting film.

‘The Story of Sin’, based on a novel that was banned by the Catholic church (and filmed twice previously) is a tale of a woman who suffers for love much like ‘Madame Bovary’ or ‘Anna Karenina’. Eva is, in her own words, ‘a victim of circumstance’, whose love for Lukash, constantly thwarted by both fate and society is the cause of her downfall. Borowczyk’s fidelity to the literary tradition is one of the film’s strengths; making Eva’s rise and fall the central feature of the film rather than the more salacious subject matter. The adult content, involving two lovemaking scenes are never over-elaborated, completely the opposite from the path Borowczyk would later take. His earlier films had the reputation of being filmed through a fetishist’s eye and the early scenes in ‘The Story of Sin’ between Eva and Lukash positively crackle with sexual tension. Conversations occur with the focus purely on the eyes though the talk is flirting in nature. Memories blur with real life. Just look at how Borowczyk directs the seemingly casual tossing of items of clothing; hats, gloves, coats with the camera following with great interest. Busts and vases are placed in the centre of the frame. It is a unique and sensual approach to filmmaking, done with great subtlety.

‘The Story of Sin’ also contains a number of satirical barbs, not something that the film is renowned for. Eva’s initial piety, dedicated to avoiding sin and impure thoughts, does not seem to be shared by the other members of her family or local society. Whilst she covers ‘sinful’ works of art and books, others cheerfully avoid attending confession. When Eva falls in love with Lukash, she is cast out by her family as a slut and a whore, despite their own lack of piety. Borowczyk hints at the moral corruption at the heart of this society. Eva is exploited and taken advantage of by everyone she meets; no matter how much she searches for Lukash or attempts to create a life for them both together, society moves to prevent it. Conmen use her body as a means of committing murder; her motives to kill Szczerbic are noble of sorts but the conmen seem purely motivated by greed. Exploited and rejected by all, Eva’s fate is sealed. The satirical elements of Borowczyk’s work, when subtle and not over the top, remains underrated, obscured by the more sexually frank reputation he has.

Nominated for the Palme D’Or and the only film of his shot in his native Poland, ‘The Story of Sin’ is an impressive contrast to ‘The Beast’, the other Borowczyk film of 1975. Unfortunately, not much of his earlier work (or later work for this matter) remains currently available. Certainly one considers that the director has a career of two halves; one half mature and subtle, the other sensationalist and wilfully provocative. Whatever the reasons behind Borowczyk’s decline, which mirrors the heroine of this film (both victims of a sexually prudish society?), there is enough here to warrant rediscovery and rehabilitation.

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