January 2018, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour – 
Improvisation in Film

UNTER DEM PFLASTER IST DER STRAND, 1975

"Improvisation is the highest form of concentration, of awareness, of intuitive knowledge, when the imagination begins to dismiss the pre-arranged, the contrived mental structures, and goes directly to the depths of the matter. This is the true meaning of improvisation, and it is not a method at all, it is, rather, a state of being necessary for any inspired creation." Taking Jonas Mekas's quote from his "Notes on the New American Cinema" text as a starting point, we are dedicating this month's Magical History Tour to the different forms and manifestations of improvisation in film. Twelve examples that criss-cross film history testify to the massive scope for trying things out in rehearsals or in front of a running camera, to the programmatic opportunities to shape proceedings both by actors and for them, to breaking though boundaries and conventions, and last, but not least, to the exuberant joy of acting (together), experimentation and the unpredictable.

EAST OF EDEN (Elia Kazan, USA 1955, 1.1., 8.1. & 20.1.) Changing perspectives, fast cuts, a confusing, skewed camera position and the use of CinemaScope to eschew close-ups -  these characteristics of form run through Kazan's merciless description of a generational conflict at the end of the First World War. Cal (James Dean in his first role) feels unloved by his authoritarian father Adam (Raymond Massey). When his father rejects him once again, he confronts his brother with the truth about their mother, who is believed to be dead but actually runs a brothel. His brother escapes into war, his father into disease. The generational conflict also continued beyond the story itself: Massey and his more conservative take on acting rejected Dean’s tendency to improvise, with the confrontation between father and son receiving an additional level of expression in this clash of different acting styles.

ENTRE LES MURS(The Class, Laurent Cantet, F 2009, 2. & 6.1.) Based on the eponymous novel by the teacher and writer François Bégaudeau and a series of improvisation workshops during which, over the period of a year, Cantet and a number of teachers developed the characters and plot, the film depicts the daily life of a class of 15-year-olds in a Paris banlieue before they go off to vocational school. The imparting of knowledge is somewhat neglected as a result of the high number of students who are immigrants themselves or the descendants of immigrants, the different cultural and social backgrounds and the students’ volatile age. The French teacher François Marin (played by Bégaudeau) ends up also functioning as a social worker and an integration officer. For a long time, he tries to address the many conflicts directly in class, until one particular situation escalates. A sober and concentrated, but completely honest and intensive, insight into the French school system and attempts to understand it as a place of social and and cultural integration.

DER RUF DER SIBYLLARELOADED (Clemens Klopfenstein, CH 1985, 3. & 12.1.) One could be tempted to ascribe the levity, playfulness, humor and imagination in this journey through the land of love to the director’s working methods, once described by him as an “improvised way of shooting”. This acknowledgement runs like a thread through his oeuvre. It is also apparent in this real-life fairytale set between the theater and a monastery, between Milan and the Sibbillini mountains, where the actress Clara (Christine Lauterburg) and her jealous boyfriend (Max Rüdlinger), who tries to eke out a living as an artist and is suspicious of her job at a German theater and more particularly of her attractive stage partner there, end up. The landscape functions like a magic potion releasing unknown forces and giving new wind to the complicated relationship. We are screening the recently digitalized version of the film, whose soundtrack was re-created by Klopfenstein himself.

MENSCHEN AM SONNTAG (People on Sunday, Robert Siodmak, Rochus Gliese, Edgar G. Ulmer, D 1930, 4. & 18.1., on piano: Eunice Martins) A directors' ensemble (supported by screenwriter Billy Wilder and cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan) meets a (non-professional) acting ensemble: A "reality film" with shades of New Objectivity is created, the precise description of a weekend in the life of five young Berliners. At a summer retreat in Wannsee, interests shift, couples form and separate, new acquaintances are made and the next weekend planned. A lively collage of documentary footage and improvised fictional scenes and one of the last German “silent movies”.

OPENING NIGHT(John Cassavetes, USA 1977, 5. & 10.1.) Gena Rowlands plays a "woman under the influence", the idolized theater star Myrtle Gorden, for whom life and roles have merged into an indistinguishable whole. When she witnesses an accident in which a young admirer of hers dies, her resistance to the play she is rehearsing, or rather to her role as an aging woman increases. The rehearsals become a struggle, with Myrtle’s hysterical and constant rebellion driving her to alcohol and her colleagues to despair. The premiere threatens to be a sensational failure when she turns up at the theater completely drunk. Yet she completely sobers up on stage and in the last scene she and her stage partner Maurice (John Cassavetes) improvise furiously to transform the play into a comedy. Cassavetes once said "There is no art without improvisation." This is also true for staged improvisation.

DER VERLORENE (Peter Lorre, BRD 1951, 7. & 16.1.) was the only film to be directed by the émigré Lorre, in which he took on the leading role as a doctor who manages to murder his wife and strategically cover it up. The unpunished deed brings more murders in its wake. This highly atmospheric post-war production was also singular due to how Lorre directed his actors, encouraging them again and again to improvise and liberate themselves from the script. But this more experimental way of working was not compatible with the zeitgeist: Lorre's pessimistic study was rejected by audiences and critics alike. He himself returned to the US as a result.

NORMAL LOVE (Jack Smith, USA 1963, 9. & 30.1.) Beads and pearls, sparklers, incense sticks, the portrait of a Hollywood goddess – it is before this still life altar that underground superstar Mario Montez lies in a mermaid costume and begins, largely improvising, to interact with the objects – the start of an exuberant performance fantasy extravaganza in a rural setting. Smith conceived NORMAL LOVE as a "commercial" successor to "Flaming Creatures". The never completed, now restored work was supposed to be made up of six sequences that are partially inspired by the mermaid.

KONZERT IM FREIEN (Jürgen Böttcher, D 2001, 13. & 19.1.) Between 1981 and 1986, Böttcher shot footage at and around the Marx-Engels monument in Berlin-Mitte. The material disappeared into an archive for many years, until  - 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall - Böttcher developed KONZERT IM FREIEN on the basis of the old rushes. The result is at once a complex collage of documentary footage of the artists involved and an intense observation of today's visitors to the ensemble of memorials. The film is framed, played through, structured, and narrated by musicians Günter "Baby" Sommer and Dietmar Diesner, who lead the viewer through the film with percussion and saxophone and thus provide a running commentary. A musically improvised engagement with history and art in Berlin’s new center.

… UND DEINE LIEBE AUCH (And Your Love Too, Frank Vogel, GDR 1962, 14. & 23.1.) Fat, white lines on roads and pavements observed by heavily-armed soldiers and tanks, uncomprehending locals… This was the first DEFA film to show (and loyally justify) the building of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, but also one of the few to juxtapose documentary footage (including of the wall construction) with an improvised plot. The opening credits state that it is a film “in and with Berlin”. The impressively captured atmosphere of summer 1961 provides the foundation for a love triangle between two half-brothers - Klaus (Ulrich Thein), who until the wall comes up drives a taxi in West Berlin and Ulli (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who starts out as factory worker but becomes a member of the border troops  - and the postwoman Eva (Kati Székely), who has to make her choice. A propaganda film in the style of Cinéma vérité.

UNTER DEM PFLASTER IST DER STRAND (Under the Pavement Lies the Strand, Helma Sanders-Brahms, FRG 1975, 21. & 26.1.) A half-documentary and autobiographical love story between two actors in Berlin, who in the wake of the 1968 movement seek meaning in their life and work. Grischa (Grischa Huber) becomes more and more involved in the women’s movement, demonstrating against Paragraph 218, interviewing female factory workers and formulating new demands. Heinrich (Heinrich Giskes) withdraws in frustration and starts to drink. Their attempt to lead an equal relationship fails. Their discussions about social relations and about the positions that they each are taking push them apart. Without a screenplay and improvised at times, this film is a sensitive portrait of a couple in a crisis.

WARUM LÄUFT HERR R. AMOK? (Michael Fengler, R.W. Fassbinder, FRG 1969, 25. & 29.1.) This stylistic outlier in the Fassbinder oeuvre is based on a loose improvisational template. Provided with this skeleton of a plot, the actors improvised scenes from the everyday life of an average family consisting of Herr R., a technical draughtsman without professional success, and his wife, a housewife who takes care of their son. Sometimes their parents come round to visit, or a school friend, or a neighbor. The actors' improvisation enables the desolate existence of the characters to emerge in unflinching fashion, taking on monstrous dimensions as a form of life that is hurtling towards the end alluded to in the title.

NASHVILLE (Robert Altman, USA 1974, 28. & 31.1.) Five days in the eponymous capital of Tennessee. In this country music hub, the paths of 24 almost equally significant protagonists keep crossing. These include musicians and singers, a music producer, a journalist, a waitress and a lawyer as well as an election vehicle that drives through the streets blaring slogans at high volume. Altman and his mainly improvising ensemble show a glittering, inscrutable world of illusion in a series of vignettes, at once a fresco of the musical circus in Nashville and a shrewd portrait of America. A comedy, tragedy, and musical in one.

arsenal cinema: Unknown Pleasures #9
 – American Independent Film Fest

07:00 pm Cinema 1


Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?
Travis Wilkerson USA 2017 DCP OV 90 min

arsenal cinema: Magical History Tour – 
Improvisation in Film

07:30 pm Cinema 2


… und deine Liebe auch

*… und deine Liebe auch Frank Vogel
GDR 1962 With Kati Székely, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Ulrich Thein
DCP 92 min

arsenal cinema: Unknown Pleasures #9
 – American Independent Film Fest

09:00 pm Cinema 1


Person to Person

Person to Person Dustin Guy Defa
USA 2017 With Michael Cera, Abbi Jacobson, Tavi Gevinson
DCP OV 84 min