I saw three German films during the first-ever German Film Festival Days here in Reykjavík, and each film was amazing. I can safely say that they were some of the best films I've seen in a long time (and they all had English subtitles). Curiously, I chose the films based on their plot summaries in the brochure, but they all ended up featuring musicians in one way or another, in major character roles! Let's talk briefly about showing music in new German films, shall we.
Now, professors can make a whole degree-program of this stuff, so I won't go into too much detail about diegesis or music theory, and I know very little about film theory, but I thought I'd highlight some musical tidbits that stood out to me.
The first movie I watched was 'Poll', the opening film of the festival. Thanks to Annika Große, the amazing organizer and much under-credited founder of Þýskur Kvikmyndadagur, for the free ticket (I felt very fancy). 'Poll' is epic. Gorgeously shot. Totally dramatic, riveting even. And, there is a lot of clever use of music. Folk songs, chamber music, live bands playing- there may have been almost as much music on-screen (the characters can hear it = diegetic!) as 'scored' music (non-diegetic, background or extra-diegetic). Even in the trailer one may sense that the light classical ditty in the background mix will be featured in stark contrast with the violence and darkness of a family torn by war. And then the war drums enter for real. (Sorry about the trailers, I couldn't find them all with the english subtitles).
There are a couple scenes in particular that use lighthearted jolly music in direct opposition with tense visual scenes- it heightens the violence of what you're watching all the more. A boy in the film has his fingers crushed as punishment for lying, and then he's forced to play a song on the accordion. At another family gathering, the heads of the house play some little chamber ensemble piece together. Meanwhile, we the audience unravel the interplay between the characters- infidelity, lies, deceit are flying around the room, very cleverly shown through unspoken camera shots and quick glances (and historically appropriate salon style interaction). I could imagine that there was a lot of communication between the musical team of the movie and the director.
The most potent musical scene in 'Poll' occurs when the wife of the house plays a solo cello piece while her abusive husband's life's work explodes into flames in the background. Take that for indifference. Her cello playing also opens the whole movie, and basically closes it as well- musical bookends of the same sad solo.
The biggest problem with the cello is that it looks great on camera but it's really hard to fake like you're playing it. This film (out of the three) gets the lowest grade for fake-playing realism. It doesn't bother me so much that say, the fingerings of the cello notes aren't always right. I sure can't play the cello. A violin could have even hidden that fact a little better, it's smaller and the finger positions are subtler. But even weirder, the actress plays a low solo, and even furiously bows some low open strings, but she's shown playing on the highest string of the cello! Definitely Not Possible. DNP. Maybe she thought it was like a left-handed guitar, strung backwards. No, probably not.
Our second film today is 'Sasha' or 'Sascha', depending on which country the film is playing in. Actually, correctly: 'Saša'. This crowd-pleasing film stars a piano-playing young man who prepares for his piano audition into conservatory while also having a huge-ass crush on his male piano teacher while also wanting to come out to his traditional family. Some hilarity ensues, but mostly tenderness, frustration, a little scariness, and real-world kind of emotions, especially in culture clashes of Sasha's family from Central Europe and their lives as emigrants to Germany.
Mostly I loved the film for this scene, I wonder why.
I forget that American movies with gay characters or plots often shy away from even showing shirts off (unless it's for comedy) let alone a hot makeout scene and a romp around in bed. Even more un-american is the teacher-student relationship theme, which is usually pretty taboo. But this is a German film, and this is the 21st century, thank goodness. One of the best-made sex scenes I've seen in a long time, tasteful but also not shy.
Back to the music! I was distracted by pectorals for a second there. Sasha plays piano for much of the film, mostly a Beethoven Sonata. His mother at one point plays 'Moonlight Sonata' which is awfully melodramatic, but it works well to tie in the relationships between Sasha and his mother, her sacrifices for her child, the family's unraveling, and Sasha's 'hidden identity'. If Sasha doesn't actually play the music in the film, which he actually may, the editing is extremely careful and stylish and doesn't look staged. The hands are in the right spots. There is a lot of live-playing, which sounds particularly interesting to hear the same piece on different kinds of pianos throughout the film. Using a Beethoven sonata is a bit symbolic too, it lends an air of culture, of education, a 'better life' for an immigrant family's child. But this is also brilliantly contrasted with pop music from the family's home culture, and club music from the nightclubs in Germany. There are also long stretched of mostly Classical-era music, and then BAM! We're in a gay club and hear some serious sexed-up club beats. It made me laugh out loud at the absurd contrasts of music in the scene cuts, between this nerdy piano kid and the adult gay world he's about to enter. Well-done on the picking of trashy music, director Todorovic.
The final film I saw for the festival was probably the most 'artsy' and symbolic, but also the most interesting in terms of human emotions. 'Renn Wenn Du Kannst' (Run If You Can) involves a young paraplegic man named Ben, his able-bodied assistant-friend Christian, and a cello-playing girl Annika that they both fall in love with.
The movie's full of dark humor and curious philosophical-themed dialogue; I would suspect like many brooding Germans, the topics of death and mortality and existentialism come up more often than in say, Idaho. The actor who plays Ben acts his handicap with brilliant precision- he drives a car like a maniac, gets angry and hurts people's feelings left and right, and wields an equally sharp sense of humor that rides a fine line between hilariously bizarre-sarcastic, and sad and lonely. Sadder still is the fact that the trailer doesn't have subtitles, but we can all gaze upon the beauty of the three main characters, and watch a bust of a composer fall out of a window and hit the hood of a car.
Wow, Ben (the actor Robert Gwisdek) is gorgeous. Well, everyone's pretty attractive, I'm easily swayed by color pallets.
Annika plays the cello, though for most of the film we see her with an acute version of stage fright, and she can only squeak out the first three notes of a Brahms piece. Brahms is also played in their car, on the stereo, and in the symphony (perhaps it's Brahms's head that comes crashing though the window, we never find out). For acting like she's not even able to play the cello, the actress kind of does a B+ job, but redeems herself to A- with good-looking vibrato at the end of the film, when a beautiful solo emerges (I won't give too much away). Thankfully, the overdubbed sound that emerges in said performance seems also that of someone around the same skill- not too brilliant, not too juvenile, so there's a good match.
Annika may not have great hand positions, but at least she's not playing the opposite end of the instrument. Or conducting the orchestra. Don't get me started on the conducting, which is NEVER good. It's either edited out of the actor's control which makes him look like an idiot, waving his arms about to no beat in particular, or no one ever bothers to even look in a conducting book for a basic 3 and 4 pattern.
All I can think about when actors begin to play music on video is 'don't ruin it for me'. It's really difficult to overdub sound of live classical music playing, but harder to be a musician watching a movie of actors playing musicians (unless of course, they're Adrian Brody and have some sort of weird piano genius inside of them). If you're going to fake it really badly, I might as well just watch you play the highest part of the piano, and have the lowest, darkest, clangorous sounds come out of it. Or maybe someone playing a trumpet, and then an oboe timbre comes out. That would be very curious. That being said, I was still able to take myself away from the nit-pickyness of my viewing and escape for a bit. The cello bothered me less and less as the film went on. The piano sonata became all the more powerful, the Brahms more elegant and heartbreaking. I want to be transported to a world where people walk through their dreams, where the little guy wins, where CGI can built an impossible house out of some sticks and stones propped up in the ocean. A good movie, like any of these three, can put me in this sort of magical mood all the rest of the evening, where I just want to go for a long walk and think about life and light and color. In their best moments, these films had some quiet revelations. Watch If You Can.
(All images and trailers copyright their individual films and websites, I make no claims to the images but to show screenshots for examples and promote the films in my small way.)