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TTF 2010 - Memento and The Science of Memory

The classic indie film, Memento was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday, April 24th, 2010, at the Chelsea Cinemas, celebrating its 10th anniversary. Since it was part of the Tribeca Talks track, it was followed by a panel discussion featuring special guests from the science and screen community, to explore “The Science of Memory” as it relates to Memento and, more broadly, the history of Hollywood's portrayal of memoryMomento Panel.

Sponsored and presented by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation -- a philanthropic, not-for-profit grant-making institution based in New York City -- the Foundation challenges the existing stereotypes of scientists, engineers and mathematicians in the popular imagination, and by showcasing the intersection of science and film, it supports the development, production and distribution of narrative features that dramatize science and technology stories. The Foundations forms part of a national program to stimulate the creation of realistic and compelling stories about science and technology.

Memento was shot in 25 days and premiered in September 2000 at the Venice Film Festival.

The panel included screenwriter Jonathan Nolan (who wrote the short story “Memento Mori" that his older brother Christopher used as the basis of the film he directed) its stars Guy Pearce (he played Leonard Shelby who has “antergrade amnesia” -- which is loss of the ability to create memories after the event that caused the amensia and results in a partial or complete inability to recall the past) and Joe Pantoliano (who played Teddy, who is also John Edward Gammel), New School Professor of Psychology Dr. William First and MIT Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience Dr. Suzanne Corkin. It was moderated by National Public Radio's Radio Lab host Robert Kurlwich.

Nolan discussed the film's many interpretations, differentiating between what was plot and what was story, to the audiences at film festivals in Europe and the USA. As per the comment by Dr. Hirst, describing Pearce's character Leonard as if he was a human. "My reading was that he [Leonard] wanted the world to forget her [his wife] because he couldn't." Then Hirst added, "Leonard is at the mercy of his narrative."

Nolan's response was, "That's one valid interpretation of the film." He continued to talk about the direction of the film by his brother, that it was Christopher's idea to run half forward and half backward: events unfold in two separate, alternating narratives—one in color (reversed order) and the other in black and white [chronological order], all creating episodic memories. Jonathan stated that, "Just to mess with people, my brother [Christopher] swapped out to different shots, so the movie itself isn't the same as the DVD."

Actors Pearce and Pantoliano stated that for some of the scenes they could not remember acting in them, and that the short-term memory loss occurs in us all. Pantoliano joked, "I can remember the make-up truck, but I can't recall doing some of those scenes." and added, "It is such a thrill to be part of a film that people still care about and are arguing about 10 years later—it’s so cool."

Corkin gave a brief summary of semantic and habitual behavoir and that this film is still current in its summation of memory.

In my mind the most gripping statement was by Leonard: “I have no memory I have no sense of time.”

That loss of a sense of time was also felt by the rapt audience who clearly thought the panel ended far too soon.

Godard and Other Monuments Rise at FIFA

Every year I go to the International Festival of Films on Art in Montreal, Canada, to see movies I'd never see anywhere else. For one thing, much of what shows at FIFA — its commonly used acronym, short for its official French title, Festival International du film sur L'art —which was held this year from March 18-28, 2010, isn't actually shot on film for theatrical release, but on video for television, and are usually an hour long. They rarely play on American television. It's our loss.

This year's top prize at FIFA went to Archipels Nitrate, a documentary produced for the 70th anniversary of the Cinematheque Royale in Brussels. It traced the visual education of the film's director, Claudio Pazienza, in a compilation of excerpts from the early days of moving pictures. The oddness of early film seemed a logical step up from the art of Belgian symbolism and experimental photography at the time, and pointed toward surrealism, another art movement with deep roots in Belgium. FIFA also screened a biography of Rene Magritte, who bridges both movements: Magritte Day and Night, by Henri de Gerlache, a film made to commemorate the opening of Brussels' new Magritte Museum.

This year's revelation in the cinema section of the festival, which has grown in recent years, was the collection of television work by the veteran documentary director Andre S. Labarthe, best known, a la JFK or LBJ, by his three initials, ASL. A Cahiers du Cinema writer in the 1950s, he was rare for that crowd in that his focus was documentaries. Separately, Labarthe's film about the theater of Antonin Artaud also screened at the festival.

Labarthe's documentaries about the cinema deserve to be seen more widely in the English-speaking world, not least because they offer conversations with American and British directors who haven't been given their due on American television. His films  tend to be short-format talks, with the longest being The Dinosaur and the Baby: Dialogue in Eight Parts between Fritz Lang and Jean-Luc Godard (1967). By that time, Lang, who fled the Nazis, had already endured disappointments in the U.S., and a young Godard had won over the critics and also learned some harsh truths about commercial cinema; he addressed some of them in his 1963 fiction film Contempt (Le Mepris), which starred Lang as a veteran European director shooting a film on the island of Capri and compromised by his crass American producer (Jack Palance). It's a discouraging exchange about the future of cinema, but one that stresses cinema's centrality in society. Disagreements about sports and politics can exist in a marriage, Godard says, but if those disagreements are about films, he argues, the relationship is doomed.

In Hitchcock and Ford: The Lion and the Lamb, Labarthe films a deaf and surprisingly humorous John Ford in bed. Ford, wearing an eye-patch, tries to speak French to his interviewer, who shouts questions to the aging director. Asked about Stagecoach, Ford responds, "It was just a Western," noting that his real concern in making films was supporting his family. Overstatement meets understatement, with cinematography by John Cassevetes stalwart Seymour Cassel. Hitchcock, also interviewed by Labarthe, was more discreet when discussing his role in the film industry, but no less illuminating.

1963's Le MeprisFor more on Godard and on the pivotal role of Contempt in the evolution of his work, the festival showed Once Upon a Time….Contempt (It Etait Une Fois….Le Mepris), a documentary by Antoine de Gaudemar, a former editor at the daily newspaper Liberation. The film was produced by a company that includes Serge July, another former editor there.  Godard, in typical understatement, discussed his experience of directing the world's leading sex symbol, Brigitte Bardot, whose blonde haired was piled on her head. Godard found the hair grotesque and offered Bardot a deal: He would walk on his hands for every centimeter that she lowered in the height of her hair. To demonstrate, in an interview with a television host in France, he got up and walked on his hands around the studio.

Skeptics might question my enthusiasm about these interviews. Can't you get the same thing from a director's commentary on most DVDs these days? With Hitchcock, Ford and Lang, Labarthe got to the directors before it was too late. And even with living directors, these vintage interviews provide a direction that prevents rambling, lack of focus or other problems with such commentary.

Of course, that's not always necessary. When, for instance, Labarthe talks to Martin Scorsese, the director of Taxi Driver takes over and gives with 20 minutes of commentary on character and dramatic development in that 1975 film.  In Taxi Driver Broken Down by Martin Scorsese (1995), Scorsese discusses how he skirted censorship on the film, and about setting up the final attack by Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) on the apartment where the pimp handling teenage hooker Jodie Foster operated.  Seeking to evoke the feel of those times' black-and-white tabloid newspapers, the director softened the color to forestall an attack from the censors, yet still turned revenge into what he calls "the psychopath's second coming."  Instead of glaring, the colors oozed. I suppose the censors thought that was permissible, since we saw it. Scorsese said the blood-fest was his Catholic version, which he transformed from the Protestant austerity of screenwriter Paul Schrader.

Turning from film directors to other topics, the German documentary Expansive Grounds (Ein weites Feld) focuses on the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, an expanse of concrete slabs of varying height and size just a short walk from the Brandenberg Gate and right behind the Kempinski Adlon Hotel, a favorite of the Nazi elite. There was a huge debate over the form that a Holocaust memorial would take, with some complaining in frustration that too much was being made of the country's guilt decades later.  The film's director, Gerburg Rohde-Dahl, brings a background to the project that adds new ripples to its story. She was a young girl whose family settled in the Polish city of Gdynia after 1939. She doesn't remember seeing any suffering during the war before her family evacuated back to Germany. (She's lucky. The Germans who couldn't flee Gdansk and Gdynia on the northern Polish coast were massacred once the Nazi troops left.)

As the director mulls her own place in this history, she talks to a sampling of people on the site – from the American architect Peter Eisenman to  teenagers and young adults who jump from slab to slab and tell her how much fun it is. There are also sunbathers. We hear all sorts of talk about a changed Germany, in which the younger generation is said to understand the crimes of the past, and some young Germans wonder whether their country has learned anything. Others come with their skateboards. Are they so far beyond the past that they can turn a Holocaust Memorial into a playground?

This antidote to the typical civic architecture infomercial makes you wonder what a monument is, or should be. Is it a sacred place that makes you stop what you would ordinarily do?  Is it part of the tourist industry, an engine of economic activity? Or is it just another Berlin park, where Germans do what they always do when the sun comes out – take off their clothes. Images of blithe Germans who invade the expanse and sprawl atop funereal concrete slabs remind you that memory, like democracy, requires vigilance.


Ruins of the Third Reich at the Berlinale

A trip to the Berlinale always involves something more than cinema. Most years it’s also a journey into archaeology. And what better place for it than this tomb for Nazis and so much that they represented? It used to be easier to see the ruins of the Third Reich in Berlin.

They were inescapable, if not too distinguished. Now, with the rebuilding of the center of the city that’s been a work in progress since reunification, there are construction sites where there were once the shells of buildings. Still, every year, films at the Berlinale take you back to the darkest days under Hitler.

Not Just Riefenstahl

This time in the Berlin competition that journey into the past came in a new German-Austrian epic melodrama about a film, JudPoster of the restored version of Jud Suess Suess: Filme Ohne Gewissen / The Jew Suess: Film Without a Conscience, a feature about a movie that was made by the director Veit Harlan under the Nazis. It is banned today in Austria and Germany, except for "scientific" purposes.

20 million Germans saw Jud Suess after its release in 1940, and 20 million more elsewhere in Europe watched the film. The numbers reflect director Harlan’s feel for popular entertainment. He was not the filmmaker that Leni Riefenstahl was, but he did better at the box office.

The Nazi Jud Suess project was executive-produced by Josef Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda (overplayed with disturbing gusto in the new feature by the German star Moritz Bleibtreu). Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, ordered his troops to watch it.

The 1940 Jud Suess was sentimental Nazi anti-Jewish melodrama, yet It was far from the most venal of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda films. You need only look at newsreel from the time to see far worse. But Jud Suess may have been among the most effective.

It'’s the story of a 18th-century Jewish financier, who gains the confidence of the king of Baden-Wurttemburg, and is later tried and executed to the delight of a frenzied crowd after he's been intimate with a Christian girl. In the original film, she submits to him in order to end the torture of an opponent of the financier, who is screaming in a cell nearby. In his defense, Judd Suess tells the court that he was only acting on orders from a ruler whom he served. Sound familiar? Just add some flourishes of unintentional humor that would make Mel Brooks wince.

The melodrama worked then, provided it was shown to a willing audience. It doesn't work now, unless Nazi-stalgia kitsch is your thing, even though director Oskar Roehler has ramped up the sex and taken us through the defeat of the Nazis and the judgment of history on those who served them, like the actor Ferdinand Marian, who played Jew Suess. 

A screen Casanova before Goebbel's reinvented him as  screen Jew, Marian was married to a Jewish actress (played by Martina Gedeck, from The Lives of Others) whom he abandoned. I won't give away details of their absurdly improbable encounter once the war begins, but she ends up dying in the camps.

The new feature shows you how hard it is to return to that spirit of melodrama. It also makes you wonder what the point would be to try.

It's all the more preposterous that the filmmakers seem to have meant well. Try to see this disaster to watch how the actor Tobias Moretti plays the Nazi Era actor Ferdinand Marian to the letter, and beyond. Marian was so persuasive as Jew Suess in the 1940 film, we're led to believe, that he was sought out by women who wanted the adventure of sex with "a Jew." See it also for Moretti as Goebbels, just as over the top as Christoph Waltz’s performance in Inglorious Basterds. Does gestural sadism make screen Nazis fun to watch, and therefore OK?

Yet seeing Jud Suess anywhere will be a problem. Although the press packed into the Berlinale Palast for a screening, later crowding the press conference and forcing a crowd to watch it on a huge screen outside, the Germans who saw it weren’t seduced by the heavy breathing, heavy soundtrack and heavy guilt. Watch for it late at night on the History Channel, it at all.
For the making of he original Jud Suess, Jews were brought in from the ghettoes of Poland to give the film authenticity. They were sent back after shooting, and most perished in the death camps.

Ghetto as Potemkin Village

The Warsaw Ghetto, and its cinematic exploitation by the Nazis, is the subject of A Film Unfinished, by Yael Hersonski, which was also at Berlin.Director Yael Hersonski

A film about the ghetto was commissioned by the Nazis – since it was never finished and never made public, we don't know what the Nazis wanted to do with it. One soldier-cameraman, Willi Wist, was found by the filmmakers. Wist talks about filming in the streets and staging most of what was shot. We do see is the ghetto from more than one viewpoint, a Jewish village of rich, poor and all between. The Nazis were apprehensive allowing the outside world to see their treatment of Jews and East Europeans. This might have been a version of the Red Cross tours to the camps.

If there are images of starving Jews, some of them children, which seem intended to make the captives look inhuman, we also see footage of Jews in the ghetto living what appear to be bourgeois lives of comfort. The goal here seems to ne to convince viewers that this life of contentment was a reflection of the richness of a diverse community.

Narration from survivors, witnesses (read by actors) and the cameraman himself take us behind the lens, to the organization of scenes that were commanded and acted out on German orders, and repeated if necessary.

You feel as if you're inside a Nazi propaganda film, watching religious Jews pray, or groups of men and women remove their clothes and walk into what is meant to be a ritual bath. There is even a circumcision performed under orders on a new-born baby. Death was also part of the charade, as elaborate Jewish funerals were organized to show that the captive race had its own dignified death.
Seeing Hersonski's documentary now, there’s an eeriness to the rehearsed ceremonies, especially in the disrobing under duress before entering the bath. The same people would be going into showers a few months later. Mass graves were filmed as workers filled with them with bodies of those who starved to death in the ghetto. The graves look so much like those shown in films about Auschwitz and the other death camps that the footage seems generic.

"These impression in Warsaw had a profound impact on me," said the cameraman Willi Wist, echoing what that silent footage of mass graves is telling us, "although later I got to see quite a lot." You can only guess what he meant.
The poster from the original 1948 release of Nuremberg
The Nuremberg Trial: Banned in Boston

Then there were the other films that weren’t seen. Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, was commissioned by the US government after World War II. Director Stuart Schulberg mixed trial footage with a chronicle of the war and the Holocaust. Schulberg rescued Nazi footage from burning.

The Nazis were eager to cover or destroy their tracks. The job of identifying Nazi leaders on that footage was aided by none other than Leni Riefenstahl, after Bud Schulberg (Stuart's brother) brought her to Germany from hiding in Austria as a material witness.

There was more than enough material for the Schulbergs to turn out two other documentaries  for the courtroom – The Nazi Plan, four hours on Hitler’s rise and reign; and Nazi Concentration Camps, a gruesome hour-long compilation of scenes from the liberation of the camps by Allied troops.

The documentaries were shown to the judges and defendants at Nuremberg. After the verdicts, in April 1947, Assistant Secretary of War Howard C. Petersen eyed a larger audience for the film about the trial itself: "The very way in which the Trial was set up and conducted and the evidence which it produced constitute an historical document that should be of use, not only in motion picture theaters, but in schools and universities for many years to come."

Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today was released in Germany in 1948. Yet the film was never shown in the United States. By that time, America’s enemy was the Soviet Union, whose officers are shown cooperating in the trial of Nazi leaders. Fearful that a film exposing German crimes would imperil the Marshall Plan, the government decided not to distribute Schulberg's film in the US, and refused to sell it to Pare Lorentz, who was preparing the English-language version for an American release. 

While US officials fretted about fueling anti-German feelings (an odd concern, given than veterans had plenty of their own firsthand reasons to hold such sentiments), a Soviet film about Nuremberg, Sud Narodov (Judgment of the People) , played Times Square. It wasn't until 1961 that the American  melodrama, Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg, opened in the US, but that was a commercial project that needed no government approval.

Also Censored: The Good German

The Nuremberg Trial: Its Lesson for Today played for a largely American audience in a section called Berlinale Spezial. In the same section, a once-censored film played for a largely German audience in the International cinema, the official jewel of East German movie theaters.

The film was Der Aufenthalt, The Turning Point, a postwar story written by Wolfgang Kohlhaase and directed by Frank Beyer about a young German soldier who’s imprisoned by the Polish military after a woman wrongly accuses him of murdering her daughter.

East German authorities pulled the film from the 1983 Berlinale, because East German authorities thought their Polish neighbors in the military might find it offensive. Bear in mind that in 1983, when martial law was in effect in Warsaw, most Poles were more offended by the prospect of German and Russian troops coming across the border to impose order.)

The Turning Point was shown at the festival for the first time since then this year. Beyer, who died in 2006, didn't live to see it at the festival, but Kohlhaase was there, introduced with respect by Andreas Dresen, the gifted director from the former East Germany.

It’s the classic tale of a wrongly jailed innocent man. The context is what’s unusual here – a Nazis soldier presented as a victim in German film. The soldier, played by Sylvester Groth, is an end-of-war conscript isn’t old enough to have done much damage, but let’s not forget that the Germans slaughtered about 20% of the Polish population, the highest of all the countries the Nazis invaded. Given the circumstances, you would have had trouble finding anyone in Poland who thought there was such a thing as an innocent German.

Most of The Turning Point, adapted from a novel by Hermann Kant, takes place in prison. The scenes in the cells with ensembles of Polish and German prisoners play like theater. You get the claustrophobia of enclosed prison spaces, but also the vicious battles among Poles and Germans after a war has been won and lost. It's a film that any respectable country would be proud of, yet respectable isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you think of East Germany in the 1980s.

There's a self-pity here for a persecuted German that will be as unusual for Americans as it will be hard to stomach, but it's no less self-pitying than Das Boot, Wolfgang Peterson's 1981 nationalistic hit about the sailors in a U-Boat under depth-charge attack from a British ship.  The Turning Point won’t be coming the US anytime soon, unless it plays as a restored classic in a museum. See it if you can.

For other Berlin stories go to:

Roy Andersson's Swedish Love Story

Over the weekend several films by Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson were showcased at The Museum of Modern Art as part of a retrospective of the veteran Swedish director's work (from Sept. 10-18). The hard-to-categorize moviemaker was there to introduce a number of his screenings, which helped settle many of the questions that had unsettled this writer in the viewings.
Andersson not only spoke about his craft and goals with those who flocked around him (standing room only, for this relatively obscure auteur) but also generously took questions after the screenings.

His films are layered, hard to describe, except as a sort of Swedish Woody Allen. Ironic humor shoots through sad, absurd, lacerating and painful cut-outs of Swedish sentiment and living. Women tell their lovers to get lost. Customers are treated with short-shrift irritation by put-upon barbers. Dinner guests who don't know anyone at the table, or their hosts, pull the tablecloth out from under priceless crockery--to predictably disastrous results. Dreams are given realer life than "life" is given. People shout (something that in life, from personal experience, Swedes rarely if ever do) and become violent.

People casually display SS tattoos on well-weathered arms. Swastikas adorn the polished mahogany top surfaces of wealthy and presumably middle-class burghers. People have sex where one party is completely obsessed with his failing business, as his paramour is Oohing and Ahhing obliviously above him. Elderly people stand on chairs in Germanic-seeming solidarity.
Andersson answered this very question on this matter in the lilting low-country-accented English made famous by many Swedish actors in the '60s and '70s Scandinavian film heyday: "The Swedes, and Europeans in general, were secretly hoping that hitler would win WWII. It was only when the battle of Stalingrad occurred that people uneasily began to shift to the Allies. But throughout Europe, people still feel some sort of kinship with the Nazis and Hitler. That is why I have these symbols in my films--they are still angry, unresolved, still partially committed to the 'loser' of that war." He grinned, “They think wearing these symbols makes them strong and frightening.”
If you are not aware of this intriguing filmmaker, who has been working for the past 40 years, albeit not always in commercial film, then check out this MoMA retrospective. Both You the Living" and "A Swedish Love Story," were screened among a program of his key works. Andersson also mentioned that his film was originally titled just "A Love Story," but he was advised that by adding the word "Swedish" it would boost its commercial value considerably. While we laughed, it is arguably true.
Some of what he showed--and how he answered questions--suggested a country unresolved in its feelings since WWII, still in some ways pretending to be happy with the status quo. There was a cameo role of a clearly immigrant Muslim, but one who, because these immigrants have been in Malmo and elsewhere for nigh on 20 years, speaks fluent, flawless Swedish. Two decades ago, such an unremarked-upon auslander would not have appeared in the filmography.
Europe is changing, and these films reflect that, consciously or otherwise. Andersson merits a look-see, as many reviewers have already noted.

Roy Andersson’s work is presented by
the Museum of Modern Art
from September 10 – 18, 2009

(c) marion d s dreyfus 2009

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