September 2017, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour – 
Close-up: The Face

Faces look at you — everywhere! Visual communication would lack a pivotal element without the representation of human physiognomy. The development of the depiction of facial images in the 20th century would be inconceivable without cinema and the possibilities of close-up. The versatility of the filmic depiction of the face — from the perfectly lit, subjectivizing, and identity-shaping shots of a star's gaze to the de-individualized motif "face" - is the focus of the Magical History Tour in September.

GELEGENHEITSARBEIT EINER SKLAVIN (Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave, Alexander Kluge, BRD 1973, 1. & 6.9.) According to Wolf Donner, this is "a film about a face", the face of Alexandra Kluge, a doctor and wonderful actress who died this year. She starred in a few of her brother's films, but for this one she also acted as a screenplay writer and thus had a double impact on the main protagonist. She plays the role of Roswitha - a mother and housewife who is the main breadwinner of the family, at first carrying out illegal abortions and then becoming a labor activist - with nuance and incredible screen presence.

IL VANGELO SECONDO MATTEO (The Gospel According to Matthew, Pier Paolo Pasolini, I/F 1964, 2. & 7.9.) Pasolini's film about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is dominated by close-ups of the amateur actor Enrique Irazoqui's face. After a lengthy search, the Italian director discovered his leading actor by chance. "When Enrique entered my study, I immediately knew: That's my Christ. He had precisely the beautiful, proud, and at the same time human and transfigured face of El Greco's depictions of Christ." But Pasolini was less interested in the factual similarities between Irazoqui and the faces of Christ in art history. Instead, he fell back on staging strategies from art history and depicted Jesus as a universal archetype and icon.

SOME LIKE IT HOT (Billy Wilder, USA 1959, 3. & 12.9.) By the end of the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe’s status as superstar, sex goddess and the most coveted woman in the world had long been cemented and was thus the sub-text of the close-up of her face in the film's trailer, which shows Monroe in a round "O" framed by the letters "H" and "T". The face and word not only formulate the obvious here, but also hint at the point of departure of this fast-paced and hilarious comedy, in which two men dressed as women (the glorious Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) constantly attempt to suppress their desires and get away from the Chicago mob. 

LA MORT DE LOUIS XIV (The Death of Louis XIV, Albert Serra, F/P/E 2016, 5. & 9.9.) A monumental tower of glowing pale silver hair crowns the ashen face of the dying French king Louis XIV, who is lit up by candlelight - his face is a battlefield marked by age, illness and pain. In a spectral chamber, tied to the bed and surrounded by fawning courtiers and charlatans, the Sun King slides into death. Jean-Pierre Léaud is fantastic as he plays the demise of a monarch, with nuanced facial expressions that change minimally as they go from mortally ill to the grotesque. It is a Kammerspiel, a historical film, a danse macabre.

PERSONA (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1966, 8. & 11.9.) "The most essential quality of cinema is the possibility of coming closer to the human face," Ingmar Bergman once said. His comment is not surprising: The sounding of the human face and its boundaries, of the thin layer between the interior and the exterior, is a central element of the Swedish director's work. PERSONA depicts the symbiotic relationship between a nurse (Bibi Andersson) and an actress who has suddenly ceased to speak. During a period of convalescence in a secluded summer cottage, the two women's personalities get entangled - the emblematic image of the two women's faces fusing into each other is the film's crystallization point.

KÁRHOZAT (Damnation, Béla Tarr, Hungary 1987, 10. & 19.9.) Foam, stubble, skin - in a scene lasting several minutes, an unmasking takes place layer-by-layer during a shaving session that is physically palpable. Finally, the motionless and emotionless face of Karrer is exposed. Leading a dismal life in a bleak suburb, he spends most of his days and nights at the Titanic Bar. The torpor pointed to in the exposition is rooted in the developing love triangle around him, a singer and her husband, whose existential distress is inscribed in the orchestration of filmic spaces and landscapes so characteristic of Tarr.

THE SCARLET EMPRESS (Josef von Sternberg, USA 1934, 13. & 17.9.) Many said that Marlene Dietrich’s face embodied the likeness of the 20th century. Erich Maria Remarque described the result of Sternberg's years of efforts stylizing it as "a cool, bright face that didn't ask for anything, that simply existed, waiting; a face that could change with any wind of expression. One could dream anything into it." Including the role of Catherine the Great, whom Dietrich masterfully embodies with cool, erotic verve, wearing lavish costumes and surrounded by heavy symbolism.

TWENTY CIGARETTES (James Benning, USA 2011, 14. & 30.9.) is a film that lasts 20 cigarettes: 20 friends of Benning's with different origins and ages; 20 ways of smoking, routinely, masterfully, uncertainly, reluctantly; 20 faces, turned to the viewer and set against different backdrops. Benning's portraits, which are as intimate as they are precise, screen tests as such, are not only evidence of his search for "real faces" but also of the fact that this chronicler of US (industrial) landscapes is approaching a new territory of filmic exploration.

MEPHISTO (István Szabó, HU/FRG/A 1980, 15. & 24.9.) Tanks and hiding-places, grimaces and facade: A two-dimensional Mephisto mask acting as a second face is the visual match of the protagonist’s complete lack of face. The vain and ambitious actor Hendrik Höfgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) is masked and exposed in the same way, sacrificing his convictions, friends and feelings for his career under the Nazis before becoming aware of his personal failure during a ghostly finale at Berlin's Olympic Stadium. In his film based on Klaus Mann’s eponymous book, which was inspired by Gustaf Gründgens, Szabo depicts the corruptibility of art and artists under National Socialism.

DRUGSTORE COWBOY (Gus Van Sant, USA 1989, 16.9.) is the "vision of a junkie's brain." (Van Sant) Hence, the movie starts and ends with long close-ups of the slightly detached face of the main character (Matt Dillon). Off camera, Bob starts telling his story and that of his gang, whose everyday life is shaped by regular (and very exhilarating) drugstore raids, but also risky burglaries. Their life, which is totally separated from the rest of the world, constantly navigates along a cliff, until one of the foursome dies of an overdose. The cameo appearance (including close-up!) of the writer W. S. Burroughs as a suspended priest and self-confessed junkie is impressive.

REPRISE (Hervé Le Roux, F 1996, 18.9.) The film begins with an image showing the angry face of a women raising her fist threateningly. The photo is from a short 1968 documentary about the end of a strike and resuming work at the Wonder factory near Paris. Twenty-five years later, Roux decided to search for the woman equipped only with this photo. He looked for people who had gone on strike, confronting them with the historical material, recording their reactions, asking them to talk about their memories of the time and the mysterious woman.

LA PASSION DE JEANNE D'ARC (Carl Theodor Dreyer, F 1928, 21. & 26.9.) "Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a landscape that one never gets tired of exploring. To see how it is given a soul from within and transformed into poetry." (Dreyer) Using a spare setting and preferring a reserved way of acting and a strong shortage of time sequences, Dreyer condenses Jeanne d'Arc's trial, sentencing and execution. The faces and facial expressions of the protagonists come into the fore all the more visibly - sheets of torpor, cruelty and emotional shock.

SOPRAlLUOGHI IN PALESTINA (PER IL VANGELO SECONDO MATTEO) (Location Hunting in Palestine, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italy 1963, 23.9.) Pasolini's research at the sites of the Gospel, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan, and Jerusalem, was not only dedicated to location scouting but also to the quest for faces for the film IL VANGELO. Conversations with Father Andrea, the ecclesiastical advisor of the film project, as well as reflections on Palestine's landscape and its people reveal how Pasolini, a professed atheist, explored biblical material. (mg)

September '17