April 2018, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour: Land in sight – landscapes in film


One cannot imagine film without landscapes. The scenery is as variegated as the potential and functions of these topographies are comprehensive and diverse: Landscapes in films tell stories, express moods, can play the lead, become psychic landscapes or places of longing. They are symbolic foils, islands of stasis within the frequently breakneck flow of the plot. Landscapes are "the freest element of film, the least burdened with servile, narrative tasks, and the most flexible in conveying moods, emotional states, and spiritual experiences" (Sergei Eisenstein). Since the beginning of cinematography, film has made prolific use of this mutable vehicle for conveying ideas: Early screen images of both exotic foreign locations and the native countryside quickly merged into genre films with an intensive use of landscapes. And yet even outside of this genre, a broad panorama of landscapes has opened up in the areas of documentary, fiction, and experimental filmmaking which we shall examine in 12 films in April.

LUST FOR LIFE (Vincente Minnelli, USA 1956, 1. & 17.4.) Trees saturated with blossoms, fields basking in the spring sun, cornfields, olive groves, sun-rays, colors, shapes - real landscapes merge almost unnoticeably into Vincent van Gogh’s famous landscape paintings, which function like windows opening sets onto original locations. An amalgamation of a biopic and melodrama, LUST FOR LIFE depicts the last 10 years of van Gogh’s (Kirk Douglas) life. The colors and the van Goghian scenes that Minelli composes stunningly are the actual subject of the film.

L’ANNÉE DERNIÈRE À MARIENBAD (Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais, F/I 1961, 2. & 7.4.) A film in which inside and outside, the suites of a baroque chateau and the landscape of a geometrically designed park, seem to be joined seamlessly. In this isolated universe that is unconnected to the outside world, two men and one woman (Delphine Seyrig) seem to know each other. While one of the men confronts the woman with fragments of the past, she tries to remember. In this unusual experiment with form (based on a screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet), Resnais blurs time and creates a fascinating narrative labyrinth.

JOHANNA D'ARC OF MONGOLIA (Ulrike Ottinger, FRG 1989, 3. & 10.4.) The film begins in a train, a traditional means of movement when it comes to observing landscapes. A group of travelers (four women, three men, including Delphine Seyrig, Irm Hermann und Peter Kern) set off towards Inner Mongolia, first with the Trans-Siberian railway and later with the Trans-Mongolian. Shortly after entering Mongolia, the women are kidnapped by a mysterious princess and her riders, and they travel with a caravan of nomads across the infinite steppes, getting to know the stunning landscape, archaic rituals and secrets that are centuries old.

U SAMOGO SINEGO MORIA (By the Bluest of Seas, Boris Barnet, USSR 1936, 4. & 19.4.) The first Azeri sound film is a clownish, tragicomic fairytale set amid the breathtaking scenery of an island in the Caspian Sea. Surrounded on all sides by the endless horizon, life on this utopian Island of the Blessed knows no bounds. Or at least that's how it seems to the two shipwrecked sailors, Alyosha and Yusuf, who both fall in love with the beautiful brigade leader Masha and turn into bitter rivals. The sea comes to mirror the emotions of the protagonists and their turbulent love triangle.

KURISCHE NEHRUNG (Curonian Spit, Volker Koepp, G 2000, 5. & 22.4.) Pine and birch trees, sand and dunes, expanses of water wherever the eye can see and a forever blowing wind: this is the Curonian Spit, which separates the Curonian Lagoon and the Baltic Sea. On this half-Russian, half-Lithuanian peninsula, which measures four kilometers at its widest point, people and landscapes have shaped each other over time, and the history of the 20th century has become etched in the biographies of the inhabitants as well as in the mythical landscape.

PINE FLAT (Sharon Lockhart, USA 2005, 6.4.) Set in a small village in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, the film depicts the seasonal activities of a group of local children and youths. On the border with wilderness, Lockhart creates a meditative portrait of the children’s close relationship with their natural environment, the impressive landscape of the Sierra Nevada. An anthropological gaze - shot without a team and over a time period of two and a half years - on youth, with long shots and static compositions embedded in stupendous landscapes and quiet soundtracks.

SUNA NO ONNA (The Woman in the Dunes, Teshigahara Hiroshi, Japan 1964, 16. & 20.4.) Sand, sand everywhere: in every crack of the huts as well as heaped into towering sand dunes in front of them. An entomologist on an outing misses the last bus to Tokyo and finds shelter in the hut of a young widow who lives in the dunes. The next morning, he finds that incredible masses of sand now block the way back to his normal life and become a life-threatening opponent. Breathtaking black-and-white images of the insurmountable dunes and of the flowing sand meld with the bodies of the captives who grow increasingly close.

NANOOK OF THE NORTH (Robert L. Flaherty, USA 1922, 18. & 26.4.) Unending white expanses, a sea of floating ice, which creates small channels, masses of snow: The material for Flaherty’s dramatizing and at times romanticizing description of the everyday life of the Inuit Nanook and his family was shot in northern Canada. Against this Arctic backdrop, Nanook goes walrus and seal hunting, builds an igloo, combats the cold. Combining documentary and staged shots, Flaherty’s dynamic camera sketches how tough life is in the Hudson Bay region as well as the beauty of the ice landscape there.

FATA MORGANA (Werner Herzog, FRG 1969–71, 18. & 24.4.) African landscapes between civilizing desecration, apocalypse and mirage; Herzog himself described his essayistic swan song for a dying planet, which is divided into the three chapters “Creation”, “Paradise” and “The Golden Age”, as a “land inspection”. The nightmarishly shimmering shots of the desert are overlaid with Guatemalan creation myths, read by Herzog's mentor Lotte Eisner, as well as a musical collage of songs by Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen. 

SUD PRALAD (Tropical Malady, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/G/F/I 2004, 21. & 29.4.) A film in two parts and two worlds: What begins in Part 1 as a blithely meandering romance between the young soldier Keng and his friend Tong opens in Part 2, after an extended fade-to-black, onto an intermediate realm as mysterious as it is hypnotic. In the nocturnal jungle, where Keng is searching for his friend who has suddenly disappeared, the boundaries between humans, animals and nature gradually dissolve. A splendid, polyphonic soundtrack makes the exotically shimmering, crepuscular landscape both audible and palpable.

SWEETGRASS (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Ilisa Barbash, USA 2009, 25.4.) The anthropologist and filmmaker Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash spent three summers in the Absaroka-Beartooth WIlderness documenting shepherding on the last family ranch in the area, creating an elegy as unsentimental as it is monumental about the (vanishing) American West and its last shepherds and their herds. This fantastic documentary Western shows how nature and culture, animals and people, climate and landscape, vulnerability and violence are so closely related in this place and at this time.

11 x 14 (James Benning, USA 1977, 30.4.) Benning’s early filmic exploration of American landscapes was recently restored by the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna in cooperation with Arsenal. In 1977 Amy Taubin wrote: “With a brilliant eye formed by the past ten years of pop and minimalist painting and by the experience of the Midwest, which is the source of the iconography of much of that painting, Benning has made an American landscape film, a landscape first dominated, then submerged, by the highways and power lines which connect it. Its characters are cars, trains, and planes. They take their fix at the filling station: their reading matter is billboards and signs.“  (mg)

arsenal cinema: Filmspotting: Exploring the Deutschen Kinemathek’s film archive

07:00 pm Cinema 1

Im Land meiner Eltern

*Im Land meiner Eltern Jeanine Meerapfel FRG 1981
DCP 88 min

Jeanine Meerapfel in person
arsenal cinema: Magical History Tour: Land in sight – landscapes in film

08:00 pm Cinema 2

11 x 14

11 x 14 James Benning USA 1977
35 mm without dialogue 82 min