Category Archives: Film

“ANIMAL FACTORY”— Life in Prison

”Animal Factory”

Life in Prison

Amos Lassen

Ron Decker (Edward Furlong) is a troubled young man who is sentenced to a ten-year stint in us San Quentin State Prison for a drug-dealing conviction. He is totally inexperienced in the ways of prison life and is protected by Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe), an experienced con who seems to have the entire prison in the palm of his hand (inmates and guards alike). As Ron becomes increasingly arrogant and cocky in his privileged role as Earl’s confidant, he just might find himself in danger of biting off more than he can chew with some of the prison’s volatile inhabitants. 

 

Steve Buscemi directed this account of men caught up in the penal system and the deals they cut with each other, and themselves, in order to survive. Ron is young, educated, and middle-class and is serving a ten-year sentence for peddling marijuana. Copen has been in prison for 18 years and is known as “King of the Yard.” He gets drugs for his buddies, is friends with several guards, and knows how to play the “prison game”. Although Ron tries hard to be a good prisoner, he runs into trouble with a hillbilly (Tom Arnold) who nearly rapes him in a bathroom. We then begin to see the violent milieu of frequent stabbings and retaliations, in addition to the constant tension between the races and Ron begins to understand that he is no man of his own and wants to gain revenge on his attempted rapist. consciousness. He wants revenge. But Copen, who has gotten him a relaxed job in the library, is convinced that his young friend can achieve an early parole if he plays his cards right.

The mentoring relationship between the two men stands at the emotional center of “Animal Factory”. Copen helps Decker walk through a dark period of his life and offers him safety and a small measure of hope. We see a caring relationship.

Buscemi lets prison life speak for themselves. Ron quickly learns that nothing has prepared him for prison’s violence, rape, and racial tension, or the ways such underlying threats can reshape his character even if they remain unrealized. He finds some protection with his mentor whose multiple extended stints have made it easy him to develop connections among prisoners and guards alike. However, he is never sure of Copen’s intentions and at first keeps him at arm’s length, but he also finds his options elsewhere are limited and unpleasant. Violence is always in the background as an everyday possibility, and when it occurs, it flashes by quickly enough to seem almost unreal.

Ron and Copen’s relationship is an uneasy alliance that comes out of the possibility of redemption, or at least escape.

Special features include:

– High Definition digital transfer

– Lossless original 2.0 stereo audio

– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing

– Interview with critic Barry Forshaw covering Eddie Bunker’s varied career

– Audio commentary by novelist/co-writer/actor Eddie Bunker and co-producer/actor Danny Trejo

– Theatrical trailer

– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jacob Phillips

First Pressing Only: Collector’s booklet containing new writing on the film by Glenn

“HARMONIUM”— A Revenge Drama

“Harmonium” (“Fuchi ni tatsu”)

A Revenge Drama

Amos Lassen

“Harmonium” follows characters that are much like the kinds of people we meet in an Alfred Hitchcock film. Polite stranger Yasaka (Tandanobu Asano) disturbs the peace of emotionally unavailable patriarch Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) and his curious wife Akie (Mariko Tsutsui).This is a film about mood and as we watch, we try to regain some sense of calmness just like the main characters try to do. Characters go about their daily tasks. Akie oversees daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa) as she practices on her harmonium. Toshio works in his garage workshop and Hotaru skips home from a nearby playground. Yasaka, an ex-convict and old acquaintance of Toshio’s, is the only main character that has no set routine. His presence throws everybody off, but they eventually get used to him. They fear that something violent and abrupt will happen if they otherwise treat him like a threat. Maybe he’s as tranquil and non-threatening as he seems and not someone to be feared.

Writer-director Kôji Fukada vacillates between the normal and the nightmarish and between formality and the id. We really see this with the abrupt arrival of Yasaka who is one of Toshio’s oldest friends. When he is released from prison, Yasaka is invited to live with the family, with no explanation to the rest of them. With his rigidly upright posture and buttoned-up dress clothes, Yasaka gets along well with Mom and daughter. He presents himself as a compulsive truth-teller. But his presence is something else as we learn when the film moves forward. This is a film that works on the emotions and not on the intellect. Its binary approach cracks when a new and largely unexplained crisis happens and the plot moves ahead about eight years. Yasaka’s no longer on the scene, but the family is in even deep trouble. More than that I cannot say.

“A NEW LEAF”— A Dark Comedy

“A NEW LEAF”

A Dark Comedy

Amos Lassen

Part of the new Olive Films Signature Films, “A New Leaf” stars Walter Matthau as Henry Graham, who, because of his extravagant lifestyle, has run through his inheritance. He begs his Uncle Harry (James Coco) for a loan and convinces him to give him the money with the condition that it must be repaid within six weeks or Henry will forfeit all of his property. With the aid of his gentleman’s gentleman, Harold (George Rose), Henry decides to marry into wealth, and once the vows have been taken he’ll decide how to handle getting out of the marriage. Wealthy heiress Henrietta Lowell (May), a klutzy botanist and the woman of Henry’s get-rich-quick-scheme dreams is to be his wife. However, Henry deal with obstacles placed in his path not only by his Uncle Harry, but also by Andy McPherson (Jack Weston), Henrietta’s jealous and unscrupulous lawyer.

This is a love story about these two people, who are in desperate need of each other even if Henry doesn’t know it. He has dedicated his life to living it comfortably and with style and the courtship involves finding out about each other’s tastes. As an example, we see that he savors rare French vintage wine and she likes Mogen David and soda.

Henrietta easily falls for Henry’s charms/tricks very easily, but her conniving attorney tries to make life difficult for Graham. They eventually do marry though and Graham, who has no interest in being a married man, plots to kill Henrietta and claim her fortune. As he enters Henrietta’s life and finds himself improving it, becoming a better man in the process, there might be a glimmer of hope that he won’t go through with the act though. “A New Leaf” was writer-director Elaine May’s first feature and it is very funny.

Henrietta is a dysfunctional socialite lives alone in a Long Island mansion. She’s klutzy, gauche, and primitive in taste and lacks social graces. She falls in love with Henry because his boldness gives her confidence and they get married after a three-day courtship despite her crooked trustee lawyer Andrew McPherson who has been stealing from her for years. He strongly objects to the wedding and gives her proof that Henry is broke and marrying her only for her money. Settling down in her mansion after their brief honeymoon, Henry begins protecting his new fortune by firing the thieving household staff of seventeen after seeing how they are cheating her by not doing their jobs and getting paid excessive salaries. Henry then schemes to murder Henrietta by reading up on poisons. But on a field trip with her, Henry turns over a new leaf and pledges to protect Henrietta for the rest of his life.

The humor ranges from slapstick to witty dialogue to set piece shticks. The performances of the stars are excellent as are the performances of the supporting cast. The intelligent script is fresh in how May presents her self-important characters as losers but with charm. 

 

OLIVE SIGNATURE FEATURES

New restoration from 4K scan of original camera negative

  • Audio commentary by film scholar Maya Montanez Smukler
  • “The Cutting Room Floor: Editing A New Leaf” – interview with A New Leaf assistant editor Angelo Corrao
  • “Women in Hollywood: A Tragedy of Comic Proportions” – with director Amy Heckerling
  • Essay by critic, editor & film programmer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
  • “The Green Heart” by Jack Ritchie, the source material for Elaine May’s script
  • Trailer

“TALON FALLS”— Becoming Part of Halloween

“TALON FALLS”

Becoming Part of Halloween

Amos Lassen

Four teenagers (Morgan Wiggins, Ryan Rudolph, Jordyn Rudolph and Brad Bell) on a road trip decide to take an impromptu detour to a haunted house Halloween scream park deep in the woods of southern Kentucky. After they see quite an assortment of torture and gore, they start wondering if what they are experiencing isn’t a little too realistic. Before they know it, each one of them is captured and made part of the horrific attraction they originally thought was all fun and games.

 

Horror films can be a lot of fun and this is one that is but it is also filled with a lot of gore and blood. When the four friends start to explore the crowded site, they are both repulsed and thrilled by the scenes of torture but halfway around they find themselves captured by the rednecks that run the park and they come to realize the ‘actors’ they saw in the torture rooms are actually unwilling victims being killed for real. They need to find a way to escape the nightmare they have found themselves in before it is their turn. This is horror strictly for entertainment purposes and there are plenty of scenes of gruesome violence and many chase sequences, featuring the final girl alive, Lyndsey (Morgan Wiggins). The film actually starts with her being supposedly rescued on the road and then we go back in time.

In the deep woods of southern Kentucky, an isolated town hosts a very realistic Scream Park. Welcome to Talon Falls, “where the torture is real and you’re the attraction.” “Scream all you want… No one believes it’s real.” Writer, director Joshua Shreve uses the real scream park for his independent torture film. The sets perfect because they are real. The people who run this real scream park know how to make things look realistic and this adds a great deal to the film.

We watch teenagers walk through a horror house laughing as they watch other people get tortured. Then it happens to them. This is a simple story and what I think makes this a fascinating film is that it all looks very real. The acting is fair and the screenplay is simple but for a low budget film, I was completely entertained—if that is the correct word to use for a horror film.

There is one excellent actor here and that id Tim McCain playing Tiny who mutely chases the four around the park armed with an axe and wearing a pig mask. He is the perfect bad guy who is both menacing and unstoppable.

There are several scenes of torture that were effective at making my skin crawl in places and some very effective dog attack sequences, but there was a bit too much blood for my taste. Jordyn Rudolph (who plays the other female lead) screams a bit too much for my taste and there are moments when the only sounds that we hear are screams. Sometimes a movie like this is just what we need to relax and have a fun time. It won’t win any Oscars but it is a pleasant (for lack of a better word) diversion.

“NO GODS, NO MASTERS: A HISTORY OF ANARCHISM

“No Gods, No Masters: A History of Anarchism”

The World We Live In

Amos Lassen

I doubt that many of us are aware of how much of a role anarchists have played in social movements and events such as The Russian Revolution, The Spanish Republic, The Paris Commune, The Ukrainian revolution and The Mexican Revolution. From the late 19th century until World War II, anarchists have helped to shape the world we live in. This is what director Tancrède Ramonet shows us in his new film series.

Anarchist’s contributions have been largely forgotten. Probably because anarchists were considered to be so dangerous that forces of the state killed them by the thousands and they were betrayed, arrested, and killed by their own erstwhile revolutionary allies.

The word “anarchy” has come to be a synonym for chaos and destruction and we see anarchists as “black-clad nihilists fomenting violence at peaceful protests.” However, in “No Gods, No Masters” we get a more complex history of a viable social system and the men and women who devoted themselves to making it a reality.

This film is a sympathetic history of a century of anarchist thought and practice and features leading historians and essayists, dramatic archival footage, and commentary. It is divided into sections each based on key events and we get a comprehensive and accessible introduction to the global anarchist movement that was once a mass force that sought not to seize political power, but to destroy it completely.

Part 1: The Passion for Destruction (1840–1906)

Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin, the father of Russian nihilism. (Photo by Nadar/Getty Images)

This episode shows how anarchism emerged from the terrible social conditions that workers faced at a time when industrialization provided better hygiene and social standards for some. It was a tome when the life expectancy of workers was 30 years and these were those in misery. Therefore it is no surprise that new approaches would arise. 

We trace the history of early anarchist thought from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who declared that property is theft, to Mikhail Bakunin, who advocated violent revolution to destroy the state completely. Both the theoretical and practical origins of the movement are examined here.

Anarchists played an important part in the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871, which was crushed with an unprecedented brutality that caused the deaths 20,000 people. This was the kind of response anarchists would soon face whenever they succeeded in divesting power from authority.

Anarchists issued a formal declaration of principals following their first international, held in St-Imier, Switzerland, in 1872, in which they advocated free speech, free thought, equality for all, atheism, internationalism, and an end to political parties.

We follow the expansion of the anarchist movement from Europe to America, where it grew and was fueled by disillusioned immigrants. Anarchists spread their influence through general strikes and collective action within the trade union movement, which was concerned with much more far-reaching change than working conditions. The film gives an in-depth look at the Haymarket Affair, which saw four anarchists wrongfully hanged for a bomb that went off during a demonstration against police violence. This influenced anarchist activists such as Emma Goldman.

But even as anarchist-influenced revolts spread, the movement faced a sharp division between those advocating “propaganda of the deed” (bombings and other violent acts that would serve as a catalyst for revolution) and those who were in favor of the more incremental gains of syndicalism.

Part 2: Land and Freedom (1907–1921)

The early 20th century, anarchists in France were powerful enough to draw the French president to an event. In England, they were considered so dangerous that when they occupied a London building, it took the full force of heavy artillery and 800 police officers to get them out.

Here we see the differing strains within the anarchist movement during the height of its popularity (when it seemed that an anarchist revolution might take place). This was an tie of social ferment and experimentation (including “communal living, nudism and gender equality; educational reform designed to usher in the development of “the new man”; the resurgence of propaganda of the deed in the guise of violent robberies and shootouts with police; and the participation of anarchists in revolutions from Mexico to Russia”).

Anarchism began to fade in Europe during the years leading up to World War I, but the 1910 Mexican Revolution reignited the struggle and drew the support of anarchists and anti-authoritarians including the thinkers and activists Peter Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, and Joe Hill of the International Workers of the World. Despite the early gains of the Zapatistas, they were betrayed and slaughtered by their allies. Anarchists who participated in the 1917 Russian Revolution had the same fate. After having their support in toppling the government, the communists suppressed them. While it seemed that the dream of an anarchist revolution was within grasp, World War I would put an end to popular revolt. A movement that had once seemed to be ready to take over the world was now severely weakened.


Part 3: In Memory of the Vanquished (1922–1945)

This episode begins with the United States during the Depression, and the galvanizing role of the conviction and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. This was a period during which anarchists were seen as bomb-throwers, drunkards, and Bolsheviks. America saw trade unionism and any fight for workers’ rights as an existential threat and anarchists could not be tolerated. The government and police sometimes teamed up with organized crime to fight them.

Anarchists, including the strain of thought to which Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti belonged, was responsible for a series of bombings in the US. To protest their arrest, the world’s first car bomb exploded on Wall Street and killed 38 people. Communists saw the pair as martyrs, and fought for their release in a calculated attempt to win over anarchist sympathizers.

We see the appropriation of anarchism by communists, and of anarchist symbolism by fascists in France, Italy, and Spain. The Spanish Revolution of 1936, was heavily anarchist in Catalonia. Remarkable newsreel footage from Barcelona shows life in a city run largely on anarchist principles, with collectively run arts organizations and companies, and without bureaucracies and bosses. But this did not last and anarchists entered the republican government in order to face Franco’s fascists. The anarchist militias were absorbed into the republican troops. The defeat of the Spanish Republic, anarchists were squeezed between Stalinists, fascists, and capitalists, and were soon in disarray and the movement seemed doomed.

The three episodes give us an in-depth historical perspective on the anarchist movement and also makes implicit links to the present. Anarchism arose in a period of inequality and social unrest. Despite the diversity of thought among anarchists, the popular perception has remained remarkably static from opponents on both left and right and they are seen as violent nihilists. This film tries to rectify that view, and raises the question of whether anarchist thought could perhaps appeal to a new generation of activists as well.

“CANDY APPLE”— A Black Comedy

“CANDY APPLE”

A Black Comedy

Amos Lassen

Visual Artist Dean Dempsey directed this film based upon his biological father and true stories that are strung together in a fictional narrative. “Candy Apple” follows Texas Trash as he struggles to get sober while his son Bobby attempts to begin a career in filmmaking. Bobby tries to cast his own father and the neighborhood characters that inspire him but constantly fails in obtaining a finished project. 

Trash has all but abandoned landing a job or reigniting his band as planned, and is at the heels of local eccentric, Roxy. With the help of hallucinogens, the two have regular adventures through New York and other worlds.

Because he was flat broke, Bobby supports himself through sex work that his beloved, Lady, organizes for him. He does not share this with Trash, who has a secret of his own in how to earn cash. With no prospects of legal employment, Trash lands a gig moving drugs in a small distribution ring for a cut in sales. 

When Bobby learns of Trash’s relapse and near fatal overdose, his confidence and belief in his father is broken. The film ends where it begins, with the father and son struggling to balance desire with reality but never getting it right. Here is New York seen as grimy and filled with an assortment of intense, oddball characters that are low on cash but high on ideas.

The film follows a father and son as they try to survive in New York, and the undercurrents of vice and addiction that undermine their thoughts of a better life or an artistic life. The film is a collaboration with CREEM Magazine. It is homage to New York’s gritty Lower East Side of the ’70s & ’80s.

Punk rocker Terry Trash is double-amputee who moves back to New York to room with his adult son Bobby (Dempsey) in a small apartment on the Lower East Side.  Bobby is reluctant, but committed, to helping his ex-junkie father, all the while trying to stay focused on his own creative pursuits.  Bobby tries to cast Trash and the neighborhood characters that inspire him, but constantly fails and turns to sex.  Meanwhile, Trash has all but abandoned landing a job or reigniting his band, and, instead, has befriended local eccentric, Roxy (Neon Music) and they set out for a life of adventures. The film ends with a father and son struggling to balance desire with reality but never able to do so.

“TRUMAN”— Friends

“TRUMAN”

Friends

Amos Lassen

Julian (Ricardo Darin) was born in Argentina but has found steady work in Spain as an actor in film and stage productions. His long-time friend Tomas (Javier Camara) comes from Canada where he lives with wife and children and Julian is very pleased to see him. Tomas, however, teaches at a college, can only spend four days with him. They make the most of their time together.

In conversations in bars and cafes, they reminisce about the past and try to come to terms with Julian’s diagnosis of lung cancer (which has spread all over his body) and impending death. He has decided to stop chemotherapy and other treatments. Although Tomas might be tempted to try to change his mind, he knows better than to do so. Instead, he accompanies his friend as he goes about getting his affairs in order.

Julian is determined to make all the key decisions himself. He visits a funeral parlor to decide what should happen to his body. He talks with his cousin Paula (Dolores Fonzi) and then makes an impulsive visit to Amsterdam to see his college-age son (Oriol Pla). The most heart-affecting scenes are those in which Julian expresses his love and concern for his beloved bullmastiff named Truman. He even asks a veterinarian whether or not animals experience grief and what he can do to make his passing less traumatic for the dog. When he leaves Truman for an evening with a family that is considering adopting him, Julian reveals terrible pain thus getting a preview so deep that the moment becomes a of the other losses that will come with death.

This is an insightful, subtle, sensitive look at a difficult topic. Everything about the film — acting, directing, writing, mood setting — is just right. We realize, after seeing it, that we have had a spiritual encounter with dying, friendship, and love.

This has to be one of the warmest bromances we will ever see. This is a film about the mechanics of friendship, ageing and the inevitability of dying. It is also about human. With Tomás looking on as non-judgmentally as he can, Julian defies convention to define the terms of his own mortality. The two men are firmly in touch with their emotions but there’s no renting of cloth and barely a tear as they face the simple reality that Julián’s life is coming to a close.

The film has emotionally authentic moments that take place over a short period of time and it is gorgeous to watch. The performances by Darín and Cámara perfect as well. You never doubt the intimacy of the friendship between these men. As in life, they are as different as night and day and this probably explains their simpatico relationship.. Julián and Tomás subtly change as the film goes on. We see Julián’s bravado diminish as the gravity of his circumstances gradually sinks in, while Tomás’ initial uneasiness dissipates as he steps up to the plate. Truman’s fate rests in a grand gesture of trust and love.

“THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE”— A Meditation on Power

“The Madness of King George”

A Meditation on Power

Amos Lassen

“The Madness of King George” by Alan Bennett, based on his stage play of the same name is a meditation on power and the metaphor of the body of state, Bennett uses the real episode of dementia experienced by George III (now suspected as a victim of porphyria, a blood disorder) to show this. As he loses his senses, he becomes both more alive, and more politically marginalized while his Lieutenants adapt the rules to avoid a challenge to regal authority, raising the question of who is really in charge.

This is both a funny and oddly poignant play about the British monarch who lost America (and quite possibly his mind). Nigel Hawthorne, who originated the role of George on stage repeats it brilliantly in the film with a subtly calibrated performance. He undergoes emotional rages, bouts of dementia and sudden attacks of lucidity and these give the film it’s most amusing and touching moments (and an Oscar nomination for Hawthorne).

It was at the very end of the 18th century that George III sent his court and country into a whirl over his sudden, strange behavior. He raged, yelled obscenities, rambled endlessly, attacked his mistress (Amanda Donohoe) and was unable to control his bowels. While quack doctors took his pulse, observed his stools and induced hideous heat blisters all over his body, the king’s courtiers and associates split into two factions. The king’s supporters included Prime Minister William Pitt (Julian Wadham), who needed to reassure the House of Commons that all was well with the royals, and George’s protective, loving wife, Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren). On the opposing side were the indolent, ambitious Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett) plotting with Pitt’s political adversaries to have himself declared Regent.

Hope for George’s recovery was with visiting doctor Willis (Ian Holm), a physician with innovative, pre-Freudian ideas about psychotherapy, who restrained the king and treated him like a child. We have questions about whether Willis’s method would work and if the king was indeed mad and they remain with us until the end of the film. However, what matters most in this satire, directed by Nicholas Hytner is the marvelous dialogue. Hawthorne gives the whole movie both a nutty and tender authority.

The prince, who had not counted on this recovery, pretended to have great concern and relief for his father’s condition and the king promised his wife he would be gracious to his son and think loving, noble thoughts but, of course, that does not happen.

In 1788, after fathering 15 children and looking after England’s best interests for years, the monarch was hit with a mysterious malady that played with his digestive system and resulted in some aberrant behavior. King George’s loyal supporters were quite shaken by his incoherent babbling, the loss of his regal bearing, and some unseemly fondling of the queen’s lady in waiting. He confided to his long-suffering wife, “I hear the words and I have to speak them. I have to empty my head of words. Something is not right.” Eventually, the king was handed over to Willis.

King George valiantly tried to handle the indignities of his malady and what he called “paradise lost” — the American colonies. Helen Mirren is affective as his loyal wife, and Rupert Everett is well suited to be the Prince of Wales who schemed to be declared regent during his father’s descent into madness.

We see how illness can turn one’s world upside down and test us. Thanks to Dr. Willis, the king returned to the throne and regained his old self. We feel that because of an illness, he became more soulful and a little bit wiser. 

“BLACK IS THE COLOR”— Taking Back an Image

 

“”BLACK IS THE COLOR”

Taking Back an Image

Amos Lassen

Jacques Goldstein’s “Black is the Color” is a look at African-American artists who decided to give a different image. Having been faced with racist caricatures, the artists rebelled against the image of degrading stereotypes of a brutally racist society but because these artists had been so ignored and marginalized, they had to wait a hundred years before they finally won the recognition they rightfully deserve. This film tells the story of how African-American artists how they did this. Now, a century and a half after the abolition of slavery in this country, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has just hired a black curator to fill the hole in the absence of African-American artists among its collections.

The term “The Color Line” was first coined over a century ago and it supposedly determines who is black, and who is white and implies who is superior and who is inferior. Now, finally, the time has, at last, come to do away with the segregation that has virtually kept black art out of American museums and leaving it on the fringes of the art market but getting to this point has been difficult.

The film focuses on African-American artists’ long march to obtain recognition and that march took place alongside the struggle for civil rights in the United States. Their image had been rather degraded by a discriminating white perspective in a segregated society.

Works by African-American artists are now on show in the most prestigious museums, and their paintings are selling for fortunes at auction. Yet for over a century these artists were ignored by galleries, looked down on by the critics and as a result remained largely anonymous to the general public.

From the 19th century onwards the goal of African-American painters was to reclaim ownership of their image, and this remains the goal of today’s artists as well.

The film juxtaposes works of art with the historical documents and footage of the major moments in this battle for civil rights and features interviews with the young artists, curators and collectors who have played their part in earning this recognition.

However, racist stereotypes are as powerful as ever and the question as to whether African-American art will be able to disconnect itself from the issues that gave rise to it is uncertain.

Art historians and gallery owners place African-American visual art against the larger social contexts of Jim Crow, World War I, the civil rights movement, and the racism of the Reagan era. Meanwhile, contemporary artists discuss individual works by their forerunners and their ongoing influence.

This is a much-needed survey of great work by artists whose contributions have been neglected by the mainstream art world for much too long.

“THE TOWER”— Collective Flight

“THE TOWER”

Collective Flight

Amos Lassen

Set in East Germany during the last ten years of Communism, Christian Schwochow’s “The Tower,” is a German mini-series about the lead-up to a moment of collective flight. When the end came for the German Democratic Republic, it came quietly in the form of a radio broadcast with an official voice announcing to the populace that there would no longer be any restrictions on border crossings. What started as a trickle of refugees became a deluge. “The Tower has multiple story-lines and large cast of intersecting characters that shows what life felt like to those who lived at that singular time in an unchanging political system before the rules changed, seemingly overnight.

Richard Hoffman (Jan Josef Liefers) is a surgeon at a clinic in Dresden, with burn tissue all over his back that is a painful and eternal reminder of the 1945 firebombing of his hometown when he was a child. He is married to a nurse (Claudia Michelsen) and they have a teenage son named Christian (Sebastian Urzendowsky). Richard has been carrying on an affair with his secretary that has resulted in a child who is now 5 years old. Hoffman goes back and forth between the two homes, and his wife supposedly knows nothing about the second family, although you can see her give him a couple of sharp glances on occasion. The mistress wants Hoffman to get a divorce however he knows that is impossible due to professional and personal reasons. The Hoffman family is part of the bourgeoisie in “The Tower” ; they are an elite group of doctors and book publishers and musicians. Their private lives are as chaotic as their public lives are appropriate. In such a political system, lying is a necessary skill.

Meno (Götz Schubert) is a book publisher who works with authors to remove potentially problematic passages in their novels. He is a man who loves literature, and he has been forced to become a censor. He hates this and it takes a psychological toll on him especially when he is assigned to work with an author (Valery Tscheplanowa) who refuses to edit her novel about the Red Army’s rape of German women upon invading the country and she is thrown out of the Writer’s Union because of this and we see her as an exile in her own country, all publishing doors closed to her. Meno is haunted by her and Hoffman’s mistress (Nadja Uhl) is desperate for her lover’s protection and attention, and becomes a liability when he turns his back on her and their daughter. While these are private matters, they get the attention of the Stasi, who can use it to blackmail Hoffman. 

Director Schwochow keeps these plot-lines moving smoothly and briskly, filming everything in a cold green-tint, suggesting that the world behind the Iron Curtain is devoid of color. The film is at its best strongest when it shows the direct connection between State control and private life. We see this clearly in Meno’s relationship with the censored author and in Christian’s increasing trouble with authority. Christian’s schoolwork is propaganda, and school papers are graded according to whether or not they express the proper “class attitudes.” Christian starts getting in trouble for reading non-approved books, and his parents become very uneasy. He was raised in an intellectual household, and yet in public he is meant to toe the party line. His parents encourage him to live the same kind of life that they do life that they do but he is unable to comply with their wishes. It is heartbreaking to see Christian change from a sweet teenager to tough-minded veteran of multiple authoritative organizations.

There is danger that Meno faces when he tries to smuggle the author’s banned manuscript out of the country to more welcoming publishers in the West. Meno moves from a laughing, confident man to a ruined shell of an individual and we see what politics have done to talented minds like his.

As the film moves into 1988, the scenes get shorter and the pace becomes more relentless, hopping from one person’s arc to the next and then back. In the final half-hour of the film, individuals face the crack-up of the State in their own individual ways and the demand for freedom and liberty destabilizes the entire atmosphere. Characters look at one another with an open sense of awe and fear in their faces as they wonder if this is really happening. “The Tower” is a powerful and engrossing look at the moment in history when the tide started turning and when the people are shaken out of their apathy.