May 2018, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour: Production Design

The "eye of the director" – that's Ken Adams's pithy description of the function of the production designer (who is referred to variously as set designer or scenographer, depending on the production company, country, or period), who takes responsibility for a broad range of different tasks, starting with the conceptual visualization of the script and taking in the design of the cinematic universe all the way to the creation and implementation of the interiors and exteriors. The work of the production designer doesn't just leave its mark on the look of a film, but also on its atmosphere and mood and not just in design-intensive genre films. Despite being impossible to overlook, the key contribution made by production design to the all-embracing nature of cinematic art is too seldom recognized. All the more reason then to dedicate May’s Magical History Tour to the quite literally multiform world of production design.

DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (Stanley Kubrick, GB 1964, 1. & 6.5.) The "war room" with the gigantic table and ring-shaped lamp hanging above it forms part of one of the most characteristic film sets ever. This iconic stage set was built by production designer Ken Adam, who simultaneously gives the control center of this pitch-black satire on the dangers of nuclear war something of a poker dive. What is being dealt with here is nothing less than whether flight squadrons armed with atomic missiles headed towards the Soviet Union can actually be called back.

SOLO SUNNY (Konrad Wolf, East Germany 1978–80, 1. & 26.5.) Numerous photos and sketches bear witness to Alfred Hirschmeier's comprehensive search for motifs across 70s Prenzlauer Berg. Real locations, a sense of the quotidian, and the traces left behind by time were supposed to frame the contemporary story, that of singer Sunny (Renate Krößner), who plays the small bars and clubs in the provinces with her band and attempts to hold on to her independence and artistic freedom. The film succeeded in representing the mood and atmosphere of East Berlin as well as the attitude towards life of the people living there: within a few weeks, more than half a million East Germans saw the film.

UGETSU MONOGATARI (Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan 1953, 2. & 8.5.) A village in the middle of a war-torn region in the late 16th century: potter Genjuro and his brother-in-law Tobei hope to seek their fortune despite the difficult situation. Genjuro would like to sell his pots at the market in the town and thus earn lots of money, while Tobei hopes to attain fame and honor as a samurai. Pipe dreams, fantasies, and ghostly forms guide their way initially, although wartime violence and human loss soon confront them with reality once again. As a painter and occasional theater set designer, Mizoguchi created both of these worlds, that of the fantastical scenes and the "real" locations, with a true eye for perfection and historical precision.

ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (Douglas Sirk, USA 1955, 2. & 15.5.) The 50s pastel interiors may gleam, but they’re still impenetrable, having had the conformist social norms of this visually exuberant melodrama inscribed into them. The widowed Carrie (Jane Wyman) lives in exactly the way that her adolescent children and the rigid social order of the small town would expect for a woman of her age. After meeting slightly younger gardener Ron (Rock Hudson), she gets to know a world free of social restraints that might just contain the possibility of happiness, a prospect met with resistance by her surroundings.

SMOKING (Alain Resnais, France/Italy/Switzerland 1993, 3.5.) & NO SMOKING (Alain Resnais, France/Italy/Switzerland 1993, 5.5.) Two films that can be seen in any order, two actors (the outstanding Sabine Azéma and Pierre Arditi) plus a narrator, six narrative strands in each case, and a total of 18 roles. Based on a comedy by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn and commencing with the question of whether or not Celia Teasdale, the gardening wife of headmaster Toby Teasdale, should smoke a cigarette, Resnais presents amusing episodes from English provincial life which revolve around the oft-futile search for happiness and success, being trapped in roles and compulsions, and the opportunities to break out of them. A film entirely shot in the studio that deliberately flaunts the artificiality and theatricality of its backdrops.

IKARIE XB 1 (Jindřich Polák, Czechoslovaki 1963, 4. & 13.5.) In the year 2163, 40 astronauts set off for a far-off solar system on board the titular spaceship Ikarie XB 1 in search of extraterrestrial life. Despite comprehensive on-board entertainment, the 28-month flight soon forces them to engage with their own feelings, confronting them with the hidden depths of their own histories before the forcefield of the approaching galaxy grabs the spaceship and its crew. An impressively mounted science fiction drama whose futuristic, geometric design proved a lasting inspiration, including for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

THE MAN FROM LONDON (Bela Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary/France/Germany 2007, 7. & 9.5.) Slowly, and almost imperceptibly, scenarios come together from surfaces, reflections, shadows, and balls of light: a ship’s deck, a harbor scene, tracks and a train, the interior and exterior of a light house – a cool, high contrast no-man’s land observed with total precision. From the breathtaking 15-minute opening sequence, the location, occurrences, and characters in Tarr’s Simenon adaptation gradually emerge: a “crime thriller” centered around points-man Maloin, who observes a murder from a lighthouse. A suitcase full of money that falls into the water during the attack seems for a moment to offer an escape from his austere existence.

DIE SEHNSUCHT DER VERONIKA VOSS (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany 1982, 10. & 19.5.) The third part of Fassbinder’s 50s trilogy: Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech), once a celebrated Ufa star, lives alone in Munich, forgotten by critics and audiences alike. She turns to alcohol and morphine in her frustration, the latter of which is sourced by the unscrupulous Dr. Katz, who is hardly thinking about helping her be cured. The cool, elegant interiors built by Bavaria’s chief architect Rolf Zehetbauer imitate the style of the typical Ufa melodrama.

DER GOLEM, WIE ER IN DIE WELT KAM (Paul Wegener, Germany 1920, 11. & 22. 5., with a live piano accompaniment by Eunice Martins) Wegener's adaptation of the old Jewish legend of a human-like being made of clay was one of the most successful films of its time. The heavy, space-consuming form of the mask-like golem (Paul Wegener) – which is related both to expressionism and the horror literature of the Romantic era – is seamlessly integrated Hans Poelzig's massive, expansive evocation of the medieval Prague ghetto, in which a Rabbi attempts to avoid impending disaster with the help of a human machine he has designed. 

BLADE RUNNER (Ridley Scott, USA 1982, 12., 18. & 27.5.) Los Angeles in the year 2018: a voracious urban giant wreathed in perpetual darkness, eroded by acid rain and covered in sprawling refuse. In this vast city jungle, special detective and so-called “Blade Runner” Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) must eliminate four replicants (artificial humans with both a consciousness and memory) against his will. BLADE RUNNER set the benchmark for the science fiction movies to follow, as did the film’s extraordinary production design (Syd Mead) with regard to the look of an imagined future.

PIROSMANI (Georgi Schengelaja, USSR 1969, 14. & 29.5.) The life story of the naive painter Niko Pirosmanaschwili (1862–1918), who became known by the name Pirosmani, is told here in poetically condensed, fragmented fashion. The loner Pirsomani tries out various different professions but fails at each and every one of them. He flees from his own wedding, starts working as a painter for hire and decorator, and allows himself to be exploited and humiliated. Schengelaja develops the structure and look of the film using Pirosmani's pictures and aesthetic: he works with extensive tableaux that make the spaces almost appear two-dimensional, long shots and stylized genre paintings. 

DORIAN GRAY IM SPIEGEL DER BOULEVARDPRESSE (Ulrike Ottinger, West Germany 1984, 16. & 21.5.) "The title corresponds to the film in the complexity of its meaning. The most obvious association is that to Dorian Gray, that is, the literary one, which on the other hand relates to narcissism, dandyism, fin de siècle.” (Ulrike Ottinger) The above elements, alongside a fantastic stage framing, are also to be found as sources of inspiration for the production design – somewhere between cool dandyism and a shimmering press concern, whose boss Dr. Mabuse (Delphine Seyrig) creates a person in the form of the androgynous Dorian Gray (Veruschka von Lehndorff) who is totally dependent on her.

LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS (Marcel Carné, France 1945, 17. & 20.5.) The French theatre scene of the 19th century is the setting for Carné’s allegorical portrait of theatre as life’s stage. It is here that a variety of characters meet in the year 1835, including the beautiful Garance (Arletty), extroverted actor Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), and his counterpart, the virtuoso mime artist Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault). Love affairs, disappoints, and the cruel blows of fate are woven together into an elaborate discourse about art and reality. The impressive constructions and backdrops by Alexander Trauner are no less elaborate. (mg)

arsenal cinema: Retrospective Pietro Germi

07:00 pm Cinema 1


Il ferroviere

Il ferroviere The Railroad Man Italy 1956
With Pietro Germi, Sylva Koscina, Saro Urzì
35 mm OV/EnS 118 min

arsenal cinema: Magical History Tour: Production Design

07:30 pm Cinema 2


Solo Sunny

*Solo Sunny Konrad Wolf GDR 1978–80
With Renate Krößner, Alexander Lang, Heide Kipp
35 mm 104 min

arsenal cinema: Retrospective Pietro Germi

09:15 pm Cinema 1


Un maledetto imbroglio

Un maledetto imbroglio The Facts of Murder Italy 1959
With Pietro Germi, Claudia Cardinale, Saro Urzì
35 mm OV/EnS 106 min