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January 2012, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour – "Kammerspielfilm"


With a concentration on a small number of characters and spaces, a focus on inner conflicts and a clear restricted timeframe, the key components of the "Kammerspiel" film genre that came about in the 1920s appear ascetic. But often a particular sense of drama emerged from the extreme paucity of place, time and plot that was conveyed and intensified by the subjectifying use of light and by a moving camera, which in the protagonists' immediate vicinity recorded the tiniest changes in gestures and facial expressions. The film movement, which was inspired by the modern stage design ideas Max Reinhardt had implemented from 1906 onwards on a new Berlin stage that was also called Kammerspiele, experienced its first (perhaps the only one in a classical sense) peak at the beginning of the Twenties and marked the transition from Expressionist film forms to realistic trends. Its resonance in film history is varied, ranging from standard reverential homages to earlier examples of the genre to creative variations on it (or individual aspects). Subjective as always, we have brought together a few for this month's Magical History Tour.

THE AFRICAN QUEEN(John Huston, USA 1951, 1. & 2.1.) A river trip through the Belgian Congo shortly after the breakout of World War I unites seeming contradictions: the conflicting genres of adventure film and Kammerspiel, and the dissimilar protagonists, Rose (Katharine Hepburn) a straitlaced missionary, and Charlie (Humphrey Bogart), the uncouth captain. The cutter that gives the film its name and is barely fit to sail is the third protagonist so-to-speak, providing a cramped setting for a journey towards emotional liberation that equally dangerous and comical.

EL ANGEL EXTERMINADOR(The Exterminating Angel, Luis Buñuel, Mexiko/Spain 1962, 3. & 5.1.) A surrealist Kammerspiel film in the most literal sense, even if Buñuel's chamber is more a stately salon and his characters stem not from the petty bourgeoisie (like in the Twenties) but from high society. For inexplicable reasons, the guests at a dinner party cannot leave the room after the meal. Their mysterious captivity leads to the deterioration of bourgeois conventions. Aggression, instability and hysteria rear their ugly heads among those present. Only the camera, which captures the action and the actors in a distanced, unforgiving manner, seems to maintain a sense of order.

MICHAEL (Carl Theodor Dreyer, D 1924, 4. & 6.1., Eunice Martins on the piano) Opulent inner spaces – unusual for Dreyer – form the background for this Kammerspiel that is characterized by the artful use of lighting and the sequencing of close-ups. Telling the story of an artist's unfulfilled love for his adoptive son, the film revives the fin-de-siècle and examines the isolation of the artist in bourgeois society, homosexuality and the decline of aristocratic ways of life.

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?(Mike Nichols, USA 1965, 7. & 15.1.) "What a dump!" Martha exclaims shortly after coming home from a long evening of heavy drinking, opening up another round of bitter verbal exchange with her husband (Richard Burton). Her "dump" provides the stage / springboard / catalyst for criticism, reproaches and debasing statements in both directions, which are fuelled by a young unsuspecting couple Martha has invited. The film was based on the successful eponymous Kammerspiel play by Edward Albee, a verbal tour de force about the hell of marriage that Nichols stages as a war film.

ROPE (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1948, 8. & 9.1.) Hitchcock's numerous dramas in confined spaces (Lifeboat, The Lady VanishesorDial M for Murder) earned him the epithet "God of small spaces". In ROPE, the plural becomes singular with the film taking place almost entirely in the living room of an apartment. In classic Kammerspiel-thriller style, Hitchcock unites place, time and plot, which unfolds almost in real time in what seems like one single continuous long take (in reality there were several). Two students who want to carry out the perfect murder sacrifice a classmate to the experiment and put their philosophy professor (James Stewart) to the test.

JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE – 1080 BRUXELLES (Chantal Akerman, B/F 1975, 24. & 25.1.) A woman – Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig), an apartment, three days. The camera stubbornly observes Dielman in long fixed takes as she carries out her daily routines in what seems like a self-contained world – she clears up, makes the beds, dusts, washes up and cooks. In the afternoon, she receives older gentlemen - even her casual prostitution has a set place in the precise way her day unfolds. On the second day, at first barely noticeably, the rigid time and spatial structures are shattered, and on the third the inevitable escalation takes place. A quiet, lonely Kammerspiel whose choreography of gestures, movements and rituals bears radical witness to emotional stultification.

NOBODY KNOWS(Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan 2004, 11. & 18.1.) A small apartment in the deafening metropolis of Tokyo becomes the location for four children's quiet battle for survival. Abandoned by their mother and left to their own devices, the children, aged four to 12, do not tell the outside world about their predicament and retreat more and more into the enchanted world of their apartment, which is at once a hiding place, a fort and a jail. This documentary-like Kammerspiel traces the gradual corrosion of the family's living circumstances and the way wildness creeps up on the children.

DER TOTMACHER(The Deathmaker, Romuald Karmakar, D 1994, 16. & 17.1.) Using the bare setting of a small interrogation room, a simple wooden table and limited sources of light, which try to affirm themselves in the half-darkness, Karmaker in his feature debut builds a bridge to the cinema like hardly any other Kammerspiel. There is little else to distract from the three protagonists – the serial killer Fritz Haarmann (Götz Georg), the psychology professor Prof. Schultze and the stenographer who records all that is said. The interrogation transcripts provide the thread for exploring the texts and faces, as well as the changes in perspective and the increasingly complicated relationships between the film's characters.

SCHERBEN (Shattered, Lupu Pick, D 1921, 19. & 20.1.) A train inspector stays for a few days with the reclusive family of a railway worker. When he seduces the daughter, the mother breaks down under the pain and the father becomes a murderer. "What happens is not only apparent but real, captured by the photo lens as if by chance. What happens, admittedly, vibrates right to the very last detail with restrained drama." (Hans Wollenberg, 1921) SCHERBENwill be screened with HINTERTREPPE (Backstairs, Leopold Jessner, Paul Leni, D 1921, 19. & 20.1., Eunice Martins on the piano) A "film-kammerspiel" is the subtitle of theater man Jessner's excursion into the world of cinema. His melancholic love triangle is set in Berlin's backyards. A maid (Henny Porten) can't get over the inexplicable disappearance of her fiancé and is looked after by a postman (Fritz Kortner). When the fiancé returns, there is a fatal altercation.

ALLE ANDEREN (Everyone Else, Maren Ade, D 2009, 21. & 22.1.) Kammerspiel films demand a lot from their actors: Inherently, the genre calls for everything to be reduced to the bare essentials, except when it comes to the actors and their presence. On the contrary! Birgit Minichmayr and Lars Eidinger flesh out their characters with a masterful exactitude that won them a number of awards. Gitti and Chris are a sometimes cool, sometimes playful, always credible couple that is not that young anymore. Their relationship comes under pressure in idyllic Sardinia where they meet another couple of friends. Reflected in the mirror of the other, questions about dreams and desires, conventions, expectations, longings and the price of becoming adult are raised. A tragicomic jewel.

NIEMANDSLAND (Hell on Earth, Victor Trivas, D 1931, 10. & 13.1.) Russian montage meets German Kammerspiel film. Five soldiers - an English officer, a French factory worker, a German carpenter (Ernst Busch), a Russian Jewish tailor and a black American vaudeville dancer befriend each other in a dugout in no-man's land between the trenches. This anti-war film was banned by the censors just months after the National Socialists came to power.

HUIS CLOS(No Exit, Jacqueline Audry, F 1955, 26. & 27.1.) The revolutionary Garcin, the child murderer Estelle and the corrupt Inès are locked up in a place of perdition, a salon in a shabby hotel. As the windows are boarded up gradually and they are completely cut off from the outside world, they abandon themselves to embellishing their memories of times gone by before mercilessly exposing each others lies. Based on the play by Jean-Paul Sartre, this Kammerspiel draws its scope from the outstanding performances of Arletty, Frank Villard and Gaby Silvia.