Monday, 8 September 2014

The Grønmarks took a filmic day-trip to Berlin yesterday – and we were mesmerised

We’d just finished lunch and wanted something to watch on TV for half an hour or so. As usual, there wasn’t a single programme on the Sky EPG worth watching  (apart from the sport, this has to have been the worst summer in the history of TV broadcasting anywhere ever – Sky Movies in particular has been a wasteland of tenth-rate, formulaic, amoral, teen-oriented banality). In desperation I called up the YouTube app on our TV and checked out which films and programmes I’d chosen to “watch later”. There were two fiction movies set against realistic Berlin backdrops. I started up the first one, imagining we’d all duck out within five or ten minutes – but we ended up being glued to the screen for over three hours.

The first film was Menschen am Sonntag or People on Sunday, a 1930 silent picture written by Billy Wilder and directed by Curt and Robert Siodmak. Billed as “a film without actors”, the story is a will o’ the wisp affair. A porky taxi driver and his friend, a rather seedy-looking wine-merchant lothario, go for a day’s outing to Lake Nikolassee with two girls. The taxi-driver’s chronically lazy model wife/girl-friend was supposed to come along, but instead spends the whole day sleeping in their run-down apartment. During the frolicsome outing, the lothario ignores the rather lovely dark-haired girl he originally invited along and indulges in some rumpy-pumpy with her blonde friend. Then, after some high jinks on a pedallo, they all catch a bus back to the city. Er… that’s it. And yet we watched it, transfixed, for its full 75-minute running length.

The question is, why? True, I’ve been to Berlin, and was fascinated by the place, and my son has been there three times, for at least a week each time, but that didn’t explain it. After all, my wife’s never been there, and she was just as keen to keep on watching as the male members of the household.

The movie was made on a shoe-string by a collective of young Berliners, and the main parts are played by people with day-jobs to which – as the titles explain – they returned soon as filming was completed. So it isn’t the quality of the acting that makes People on Sunday so compelling. Certainly there’s an undercurrent of rampant sexuality, and the three main girls are extremely attractive in a quirky, natural way (two of them looked very young, but that may just have been the lack of make-up). The presence of real Berliners – especially a collage of the faces of other Nikolassee frolickers – adds to the sense that this is a record of life as she was actually lived. And then there’s the realisation that, within three years, the little lives of these people would be utterly changed by a ranting, sociopathic socialist with a toothbrush moustache.

We were just agreeing how much we’d all enjoyed the film when the YouTube application automatically started playing the next item I’d pre-selected, which – spookily – turned out to be the final part of Roberto Rosselini’s war trilogy, Deutschland im Jahre Null or Germany, Year Zero. Here we caught up with what had become of the people of Berlin in the seventeen years since the release of People on Sunday.

Filmed in 1947 and shown in 1948, Germany, Year Zero was filmed entirely on the rubble-strewn streets and inside the fire-blackened, bomb-smashed buildings of the city. It tells the story of 13-year old Edmund, who has had to leave school in order to forage on the streets in order to help support his bed-ridden father, his useless ex-soldier brother, and his adult sister.

As with People on Sunday, the film is shot through with sex – but here, it is a commodity,
simply a grubby, joyless means to survival. Edmund’s sister hangs around clubs at night, scavenging for cigarettes and “presents”. Edmund gets involved selling items on the black market, including a record of a Hitler speech, for one of his former teachers, a particularly repellent paedophile (the scenes where the former pedagogue's soft little hands fondle his ex-charge make one's flesh crawl). As Edmund wanders the streets of the city all night, having committed a terrible crime (you'll have to watch the film to discover what it is), he tries to join a gang of older boys huddled in the basement of a bombed-out building as they smoke drugs earned through prostitution, but they chase him away because he’s too young. Later, he tries to join in a game of football with some younger boys, but they - sensing that Edmund has irrevocably lost his innocence - refuse to let play. When even his paedophile ex-teacher rejects him, he… well, there isn’t a happy ending, let’s put it like that.

I ended yesterday by watching yet another movie about the city, Berlin: Symphony of a City (1927), a storyless film in five acts which uses mainly real footage (there are some staged scenes, including a physical altercation between two men on a crowded pavement and a suicide) shot over the course of a year to depict every aspect of the life of a heaving, bustling city of four million people from morning to night. There are a few too many shots of industrial machinery pumping away, and the rather clunking contrast between the lives of the rich and the poor is a trifle unsubtle (albeit no doubt accurate) - but it’s nonetheless an utterly fascinating historical document, and one that makes the viewer desperately long to have been there.

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