Sunday, August 20, 2006

Sisters, or The Balance of Happiness

This is a superb film by Margarethe von Trotta (who, in keeping with the theme of this week's outrage, is also the wife of Volker Schlondorff, who adapted Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum. Both are established German filmmakers who flourished in the Das Neue Kino (New German Cinema) movement of the 1970s; together they also made The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. They are also characters, so to speak, in Grass’s weird little ideological novel Headbirths, or the Germans Are Dying Out.)

Sisters reminded me somewhat of Persona, and both films tend to remind people of Strindberg's "The Stronger," a two-character one-act play in which one thoroughly dominant woman unleashes a torrent of abuse toward another presumably weaker one, who does nothing but silently react. Over a short time, the power struggle changes hands, raising questions about just who has the power in any relationship, since -- as married couples, bondage freaks, businessmen and con artists know all too well -- submission is a kind of hustle that shapes, controls and directs the other person as well.

The sisters in Von Trotta's film are the Sundermanns: Maria (Jutta Lampe), an executive secretary, and Anna (Gudrun Gabriel), the younger sibling who lives with her and whom she is putting through school. The two have grown up together and are nothing alike: Maria is a control freak whose life, work and relationships are a model of order, where Anna is given to mounting depression over whether her studies, and life in general, have any meaning whatsoever. For Maria, life is motion, movement, doing; for Anna, it’s a widening black hole.

Anna is, also, feeling the burden of her debt to Maria, and Maria doesn’t mind reminding her of it -- this relationship is what drives one and ultimately destroys the other. Maria, who never went to college, lives vicariously through Anna, and Anna’s problems remind her of her own strength. Anna makes Maria feel strong, and Maria makes Anna feel weak -- a fact that will ultimately lead to her suicide midway through the film. Anna’s memory now both shames and haunts Maria, and ultimately leads her to take under her wing Miriam (Jessica Früh), an immature junior secretary at work. Between Maria and Miriam, the balance of power is replayed with further, more revealing consequences, as Miriam bolts at the idea of becoming a surrogate Anna.

I don’t recall whether I’ve ever seen a von Trotta film before, and the main reason I rented this one is that it’s been in the back of my mind ever since Stanley Kauffmann raved about it 20 years ago in The New Republic. (I wonder if Kauffmann ever had any impact on the Schlondorff-von Trotta union; he never missed a chance to say that she is a better director than he is.)

It’s an impressive and emotionally-charged film -- which in my world is about the best that can be said of a film, as there is nothing I respond to more than seeing real, recognizable anguish displayed on screen, and when it works, as it does here, it is almost always because of two reasons: one, the film is lean and well-crafted, and two, the actors are perfect. It clocks in at a little over an hour and a half, it wastes no time, and the subtle, sparing grace of von Trotta’s script depends on actors who can deliver a great deal within those confines. I am thinking here particularly of Gabriel -- although all three of the principals are superb -- who is especially fine as a young woman who is constantly teetering on the verge of collapse.


I also took in another viewing of Jan Svankmajer’s Alice, a stop-motion animation adaptation of Lewis Carroll, in which Alice sinks into a desk drawer in pursuit of the most demented White Rabbit in history.

Doing justice to Carroll requires someone who can not only match his imagination but push it over the edge; Svankmajer, one of the last great weirdos of modern cinema, is very much the man for the job. In fact, I’m not sure but that he hasn’t turned the story into some exotic Freudian nightmare about child molestation. The film is a perfectly wild and woolly mix of sight and (just as important) sound, and it’s still as fantastic and bizarre and nightmarish and repetitious and nerve-wracking as it was in the first sitting. There are scenes that go on way too long and hit the same notes repeatedly -- then out of nowhere Svankmajer will spring some dazzling visual idea: such as when the Alice, who shrinks into a cherubic doll, is being tortured by a snapping dog’s skull wearing a regal cap and running on human feet. Just when you think you’ve seen it all he suddenly reminds you that you ain’t seen nothing yet.

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