After the War, Before the Wall: German Cinema, 1945-1960
At the Goethe-Forum and the National Gallery of Art to Oct. 21
For Hollywood filmmakers, stumbling upon an interesting real-life story is like finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk: worth stopping to pick up, but not enough to make a big difference. So movies like City by the Sea trumpet their basis in fact while revamping their tales into fiction. Sometimes, though, even a true story needs a narrative boost.
City by the Sea began as a 1997 Esquire feature about the LaMarcas, a family from the decaying Long Island resort town of Long Beach. An unemployed drug addict and sometime mental patient, Joey LaMarca was the likely suspect when a fellow lowlife turned up dead on a nearby shore. It was ironic that Joey’s father, Vincent, was a longtime Long Beach cop, but what really made the story more than a tabloid police-blotter item was the fact that 40 years earlier, Vincent’s father, Angelo, had been sent to the electric chair for infanticide after a kidnapping plot went awry. Now there’s an Esquire hook: The LaMarca family’s “murder gene” skips a generation.
In terms of dramatic structure, the problem with the saga is that Vincent and Joey never crossed paths as cop and killer. By the time Joey became a murder suspect, his dad had already retired to Florida. So screenwriter Ken Hixon gave Vincent a more glamorous career path: Rather than retire, the cop moved from Long Beach to New York City and took a high-profile job as a homicide detective. Indeed, Hixon’s Vincent is so illustrious a figure that he’s played by Robert De Niro. Naturally, the fictional Vincent is on the murder beat when the body of the guy Joey (James Franco) is accused of killing—under rather different circumstances than in the authentic version—floats across jurisdictional lines into NYPD territory. Vincent tracks his son and solves the case, all the while protecting Joey from his fellow cops’ summary judgment after the kid is blamed for a second slaying, this time of a police officer.
City by the Sea is the second father-son drama that Scottish filmmaker Michael Caton-Jones has shot with De Niro, after the harrowing This Boy’s Life nine years ago, and it’s the best movie the director has made since that one. The cops-and-junkies stuff includes such formulaic cop-flick developments as the murder of Vincent’s partner and the hero’s take-my-badge-and-shove-it showdown with his boss, yet it’s all handled crisply. And the movie maintains a shrewd balance between police work and emotional toil. Joey’s plight forces Vincent to confront memories of his father and his failed marriage to bitter Maggie (Patti LuPone), as well as to reveal his long-suppressed inner turmoil to his girlfriend of convenience, downstairs neighbor Michelle (Frances McDormand). More filial burdens arrive when Joey’s drug-craving ex-girlfriend, Gina (Eliza Dushku), dumps the grandson Vincent didn’t know he had at his apartment.
Ultimately, the LaMarca clan’s real story is fascinating only if you believe in destiny, the murder gene, or some other overarching force. Caton-Jones pays lip service to the intergenerational framework, but he’s more interested in present-tense specifics: Vincent and Michelle’s unglamorous late-middle-age affair, the drug-addled slacker culture of Long Beach’s derelict boardwalk, the spooky allure of the town’s abandoned seaside playground. City by the Sea may traffic in cop-drama readymades, but it grounds them in details that feel right.
In the ’30s, most of Germany’s best-known directors and stars fled the Nazis. German filmmaking didn’t stage an internationally recognized comeback until the New German Cinema of Fassbinder, Herzog, and Wenders began in the late ’60s. Many films from the immediate postwar period merit rediscovery, however, as demonstrated by a new series organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Goethe-Institut, “After the War, Before the Wall: German Cinema, 1945-1960.”
The period was characterized by the Heimatfilm, or homeland film, known for its nostalgic celebration of German life and landscape. The genre, which evoked lost innocence and domestic normality for audiences recovering psychically and economically from World War II, is exemplified by 1955’s Sissi (Sept. 23 at the Goethe-Forum), a romantic tale that’s a perennial favorite in Germany. But others among the 12 films to be screened in Washington show that postwar German filmmaking wasn’t all romance and reminiscence.
Like their American counterparts, many of these films are melodramas. One characteristic of the genre is strong women characters, and all five of the previewable films feature such figures—whether unalloyed good or bad girls, good girls touched by badness, or bad girls who are in essence quite good. The last type is the heroine of The Sinner (Sept. 9 at the Goethe-Forum), the story of a sometime prostitute who loves and protects a terminally ill painter. Thought to be scandalous when it appeared in 1950, the film is notable for its sympathetic portrayal of “immoral” behavior, its hints of nudity, and its narrative approach. The story is contrived, but director Willi Forst
distinguishes it by staging the movie as an interior monologue (lead actress Hildegard Knef narrates nearly every moment) with an elaborate system of flashbacks-within-flashbacks.
A good girl defiled by evil is at the center of 1952’s Roses Bloom on the Grave in the Meadow (Sept. 10 at the Goethe-Forum). The movie gives a dark twist to the Heimatfilm, depicting such bucolic attractions as windmills, canal boats, and country fairs, but rendering the story in the ominous style of ’20s German expressionism, including deep shadows, oblique angles, and ghostly double exposures. Innocent farm girl Dorothy (Ruth Niehaus) is threatened by a brutish neighbor and haunted by the legend of Wilhelmina, a local woman who was raped and killed by a Swedish officer three centuries earlier. Although she falls in love with a young architect who intends to marry her and take her away, Dorothy is convinced that Wilhelmina’s fate will also be hers.
I Often Think of Piroschka (Sept. 18 at the Goethe-Forum) is also a Heimatfilm, although the homeland it depicts is Hungary, not Germany. Set in 1925, it’s a romantic comedy about Andreas (Gunnar Moller), a German college student who goes to spend the summer in a small Hungarian village. During the trip, he’s smitten with Greta (Wera Frydtberg), another German abroad. Once he arrives in the hamlet, however, Andreas falls for Piroschka (Liselotte Pulver), the exuberant 17-year-old daughter of the local stationmaster. Director Kurt Hoffmann is a bit condescending to the small-town locals, but Andreas is lampooned, too, especially in a bedroom-farce sequence in which he must juggle Greta and Piroschka. Appropriately, the movie (one of the few in the series that’s in color) is presented as the older Andreas’ longing recollection of first love and vanished pastoral life.
At first, The Hooligans (Oct. 4 at the Goethe-Forum) seems like a simple transplant of the Hollywood juvenile-delinquent picture. Horst Buchholz plays Freddy, a teenage tough who’s estranged from his parents and manages to get his younger brother involved in a reckless mail-truck heist. Opening in a public swimming pool where Freddy and his pals tease young women, the 1956 film is charged with adolescent sexuality; its most remarkable character is Sissy (Karin Baal), Freddy’s willful 15-year-old moll. Another distinctive aspect of the tale is that adult authority is stronger than in U.S. mean-teen flicks: Freddy’s father joins the police in searching
for his son, and when the gang’s youngest member peevishly throws his jacket in the street, an earnest matron immediately intervenes.
Germany’s postwar “economic miracle” was fair game by the time Rolf Thiele directed 1959’s A Call Girl Named Rosemarie (Oct. 7 at the Goethe-Forum). Inspired by the actual case of a murdered Frankfurt prostitute, the film shows how Rosemarie (Nadja Tiller) rises from a small-time hooker who works the streets with two satirical songsters (whose tunes provide commentary throughout) to the favored companion of major industrialists. Rosemarie becomes rich, but also at risk, when one of her new acquaintances uses her to tape-record the business secrets of her clients. The German Foreign Ministry protested when this movie was invited to the Venice Film Festival.
Among the series’ unpreviewed entries are several explicitly political films. In The Murderers Are Among Us, made in 1950 in East Germany, a doctor plots revenge on a war criminal who’s become a successful businessman, whereas 1951’s The Lost Man, the only film directed by actor Peter Lorre, is about a doctor tormented by memories of his actions during the war (both screen Oct. 6 at the National Gallery). A commercial failure with guilt-weary German audiences, the latter led Lorre to return permanently to Hollywood, where he’d been working since the ’30s. Wolfgang Staudte’s controversial 1960 Kirmes (Oct. 9 at the Goethe-Forum) tries to assign responsibility for the murder of a young German soldier who deserted in 1945, and Robert Siodmak’s 1960 My School Mate (Oct. 21 at the Goethe-Forum) is based on the true story of a postman who wrote to his old school chum Hermann Goering to suggest that the field marshal end the war. The revival of such films should go a long way toward revamping postwar German cinema’s reputation as the exclusive domain of hay wagons, harvest festivals, and innocent Frauleins. CP