Beyond the Multiplex

Distressing box office results for brilliant indies and docs. Plus: Zombies, Hitler and maybe the best 9/11 film yet.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published October 6, 2005 7:29AM (EDT)

Too many films, too little time. This isn't just the lament of a relatively pampered film critic; it's more or less the predicament of independent film as an industry. As I've endlessly insisted in this cubbyhole, these are the best of times and the worst of times. Filmmakers around the world are churning out new work, much of it ambitious and interesting, at a pace never before seen -- in part because the cost of production keeps dropping and the technology becomes ever more available.

But is there an audience for all these movies? That's not clear. There continue to be low-end micro-hits, at an economic scale that probably makes sense for at least some producers and distributors. Werner Herzog's documentary "Grizzly Man" has grossed something like $2.5 million in the United States, despite never playing on more than 105 screens. (A mid-level Hollywood film might open on 3,000 screens; a huge release, more than 4,000.) Phil Morrison's "Junebug" -- a film I still haven't seen, embarrassingly enough -- has topped $2 million and reached 143 screens. British director Pawel Pawlikowski has grossed almost $1 million, from just 55 screens, for "My Summer of Love." (I'm not even including a freak breakout like "March of the Penguins," which has now grossed $72 million and counting.)

But when you look at the year's other well-reviewed indies and imports, you see a lot more failure than success. David Mackenzie's "Asylum," a film I thought was destined for a broad adult audience, has grossed only $364,000, despite playing on 55 screens. Mike Mills' "Thumbsucker" has brought its producers $227,000 in limited release on 28 screens -- not atrocious, but not what was expected from a film starring Vincent D'Onofrio, Tilda Swinton and Keanu Reeves. Jan Hrebejk's Oscar-nominated Czech film "Up and Down"? Just $244,000 from 16 screens. Hans Weingartner's "The Edukators," which I sagely predicted would be the anti-globalization left's first hit movie? Only $170,000 on 19 screens.

Arnaud Desplechin's "Kings and Queen" got reviews to die for (yours truly certainly fell out of his tree), but never escaped the big-city art-film ghetto, playing in seven big-city theaters and bringing home $225,000. Even those chump-change figures might look good to the distributors of Jia Zhangke's marvelous film "The World," which has grossed a grand total of $58,000, or Gusha Omarova's Kazakh-made "Schizo" ($52,000). Björn Runge's "Daybreak" -- a serious drama from an important Swedish filmmaker -- played for one weekend in Manhattan and made a grand total of $6,355. Siegrid Alnoy's "She's One of Us" also played New York for a few days, but the results must have been so painful that the distributor has reported no U.S. income at all.

Is there a pattern to this gruesome lottery? Not one I can see, except, as the estimable Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman once put it, that nobody knows anything. In that spirit, no more predictions from me (at least none this week). Dennis Gansel's acclaimed Nazi-era drama "Before the Fall" feels like a potential hit, which obviously means nothing. Wim Wenders' "Land of Plenty" is one of the director's best films in years, and may be the great 9/11 movie so far -- and it doesn't even have a distributor. Two classics by the master of Gallic severity, Robert Bresson, are back in circulation in lustrous new prints, and then there's "Zombie Honeymoon," which is more like a Bresson or Wenders movie than you might expect. Except that it's about zombies. On a honeymoon.

"Before the Fall": Training the future Nazi governors of New York and Chicago
As director Dennis Gansel explains, it's become difficult to get German audiences interested in films about the Third Reich. People over 35 may feel they've spent too much of their lives expiating and obsessing over the unforgivable sins of their parents or grandparents; to younger generations, the whole thing seems like distant, unpleasant and largely irrelevant history in a nation divided by contemporary political, class and ethnic tensions. All the same, German artists and intellectuals have returned once again in recent years to the central conundrum of the Nazi era: How could it have happened? How did the most cultured nation on the planet, which had produced much of the poetry, philosophy and music at the bedrock of Western civilization, descend so rapidly into barbarism?

Gansel's friend Oliver Hirschbiegel made the extraordinary film "Downfall," which depicts Adolf Hitler, in Bruno Ganz's memorable performance, as a recognizable human being whose cruelty and insanity were framed by a powerful and in many ways pathetic personality. Gansel's new film, "Before the Fall," won't be as controversial, but it's a potent and well-executed drama that explores the seductive power of the Nazi elite and its sweeping vision for the future.

Max Riemelt, a blond and muscular young actor who's something of a matinee idol back home, stars as Friedrich, an innocent but ambitious boxer from a working-class family who becomes identified as a rising star. In defiance of his anti-Nazi father, he enters a Napola, one of Hitler's exclusive military academies designed to produce the future party leadership of the Thousand-Year Reich. ("Napola" is also the film's German title.) As the school's governor tells his young charges, loyal Nazis will be needed all over the world -- they will one day be governors of London, New York, Sydney and Cape Town.

What follows is a conventional but tautly paced boys'-school drama, with a profoundly sinister undercurrent. Friedrich slowly develops a painful understanding that all is not right at the Napola -- he is encouraged to beat his boxing opponents into unconsciousness, and the "prisoners of war" the cadets are enlisted to hunt down in a nearby forest one night turn out to be unarmed Russian children. But it takes his growing friendship with a sensitive, intellectual boy named Albrecht (Tom Schilling), son of the school's powerful governor, to catalyze Friedrich's moral reaction.

During his brief visit to New York this summer, the 32-year-old Gansel tells me he first learned about the Napolas, which remain little-known even to scholars of the Nazi period, from conversations with his own grandfather, who had been a student at one of the elite academies and remained close to his schoolmates for the rest of his life. Then, in making his 2001 film, "Das Phantom," Gansel discovered how many of the schools' alumni had later assumed important positions in German society.

"There was a terrorist group called the Red Army Faction that killed Alfred Herrhausen, the CEO of Deutsche Bank, in 1989," Gansel says. "He was a very powerful industrial manager and he was a former Napola student. I thought this was pretty interesting: The most powerful man in European finance was once trained to be the Nazi governor of Chicago. That was the first time I had heard about that, and it turned out that a lot of the German power structure in the '60s, '70s and '80s came out of the Napolas. There were a lot of journalists, a lot of lawyers, a lot of CEOs. Many of them are still alive. There is still an active old boys' network. It's not a Nazi network, as far as I can tell. But it's an old boys' network. And the story of the Napolas is totally unknown in Germany today."

Friedrich's dilemma, Gansel says, is the same one that many Germans faced under Nazism -- but most lacked his moral courage. In "Before the Fall" Friedrich becomes a sort of Christ-like figure, forced to choose between the tremendous worldly power of evil on one hand, and torment and humiliation on the other. If Friedrich and Albrecht stand for something, it's the small minority of Germans who actively (if not very effectively) resisted the Nazi regime.

"It was interesting to work out their different modes of resistance," Gansel says. Albrecht, whom the director sees as a representative of the 19th century heritage of German philosophy and poetry, "resists in the only way that follows his own character -- he does it in an intellectual way." Friedrich, on the other hand, is a favorite of the governor, Albrecht's father. When he tries to protest the brutal killings in the woods, the governor interrupts him to say, "Call me Heinrich," and Friedrich is left speechless.

"This is really about seduction," Gansel says. "Friedrich needs more time, and he needs tremendous courage, because his form of resistance is physical. It takes a long time, until the moment during his final boxing match when all the governors and officers are standing and clapping for him, in their uniforms, telling him, 'Yeah, you're on the right track.' Then he finally says, 'OK, enough.' I think this is believable. I don't believe films where people say immediately, 'Oh, I see that this is wrong. I will say no.' I don't think it works that way."

The film's depiction of the Napola atmosphere and curriculum has been rigorously researched; Gansel and his co-writer Maggie Peren drew math problems and science lectures from genuine Napola textbooks, and borrowed numerous incidents from the accounts of Gansel's grandfather and other former students. In fact, Gansel says he has portrayed his grandfather in the film, in the character of Vogler (Devid Striesow), a decent and in many ways honorable officer who nonetheless never resists the thickening evil around him. He sympathizes with Friedrich over the incident in the woods, and the inevitable destruction of Albrecht, but encourages him to focus on his boxing and his education.

"You ask yourselves, why did they follow?" Gansel says. "Why did someone like my grandfather follow these people? Nazis in films are always bad, evil people. But that's not the way it worked at the time. They were intelligent, sometimes eloquent, charming, good-looking. Vogler can understand Friedrich in a way: He tells him, 'It's bad what happened in the woods -- but think of yourself and continue.' That's what millions and millions of Germans did. They knew something. They knew it was wrong. But they continued."

"Before the Fall" opens Oct. 7 in New York and Chicago, Nov. 11 in Los Angeles, and Dec. 2 in Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton, Fla., with more cities to be announced.

"Land of Plenty": Wounded people in a screwed-up country -- and guess what? It's ours!
At least on a theoretical level, it's obnoxious to rant and rave about some film that 90 percent of you, or more, won't get a chance to see unless and until someone puts it out on DVD. But as noted above, most of the movies chewed upon in this space never get shown outside New York and L.A. anyway. So what makes Wim Wenders' "Land of Plenty" special? Well, it's apparently getting no U.S. distribution at all, beyond a one-week engagement at the IFC Center in New York's Greenwich Village. (It's listed as an IFC Films release, and God love the company for that -- but it also isn't listed anywhere on the IFC Web site.)

Again, so what? Lots of films, even if made by formerly prestigious directors, can't find an audience or make a nickel. But in this case we've got a heartbreaking, visionary drama, shot on the fly on a frantic two-week schedule in downtown Los Angeles with almost no budget, that is simultaneously Wenders' best work in years and the most compelling cinematic response to the 9/11 era and its ambiguities that I've seen so far. "Land of Plenty" was shot on digital video, of course, but has been spectacularly blown up to wide-screen film and is as visually memorable as any of Wenders' classics. Yet unless you live in Manhattan -- and feel like going to the movies some night next week -- you'll never get to see it.

Is this, to use the most overused word in our language, "ironic"? No. What it is instead is a sad commentary on the overarching stupidity and cowardice of virtually everybody and everything. Apparently the buzz coming out of the Venice Film Festival was that "Land of Plenty" was some kind of shrill anti-American screed -- although I can't find any evidence that anybody who actually saw it said that -- and the film was rendered pretty much untouchable.

Wenders himself has been accused of talking out of both sides of his mouth. At a Venice press conference he insisted that "'Land of Plenty' is not in any way an anti-American film," but later told an Italian newspaper, "Well, what do you want? Bush has convinced everyone that those who don't agree with him are anti-American." As the ignominious fate of this film so far suggests, the fact of the matter is that even liberal Americans who don't agree with Bush on anything are hesitant to align themselves too closely with an aging German filmmaker in horn-rimmed glasses, who by dint of being a) foreign, and b) intellectual, has apparently forfeited any right to have opinions about America.

If we lived in a world where it was possible to skip the dumbass Manichaean politics and talk about art as if it potentially expressed nuance and subtlety, I would tell you that "Land of Plenty" is a haunting film about loss, fear, faith and loneliness, with America as its highly symbolic frame. Michelle Williams (of "Dawson's Creek") plays Lana, the daughter of Christian missionaries, who is back in the United States after an extended stay in the West Bank. She ends up at a homeless mission on the exceptionally mean streets of downtown L.A., where some of America's poorest and most desperate people cling to survival in the shadow of those sleek, anonymous skyscrapers. She's partly there as the guest of the pastor (Wendell Pierce), an old family friend, but mostly to find her uncle Paul (John Diehl), a deranged Vietnam vet who's roaming the city in a decrepit Dodge van outfitted with jury-rigged surveillance equipment.

Traumatized by the notion that bands of Islamic terrorists armed with improvised weapons are eating away at the national fabric, and convinced that only he can stop them, Paul does indeed appear as a farcical figure, at least at first. Pursuing random Middle Eastern-looking people in a van that won't reliably start, fueled by booze, pills, coffee and a nonstop soundtrack of right-wing talk radio, and dictating taped memos of his activities to a nonexistent audience, he's a caricature of American paranoia. But in Diehl's compassionate portrayal, he's also a damaged and vulnerable man completely true to an internal moral code; he fervently believes in a country and a flag that seem to have forsaken him.

As Lana and Paul, despite their opposing political views, tentatively reach out for each other, "Land of Plenty" finds its tender inner self. Both narrate their activities to entities unseen -- Lana prays aloud, glowing from within like a suburban Joan of Arc, and Wenders' depiction of religious faith is entirely uncynical -- and both are moved by genuine idealism. They eventually come together on a strange odyssey to Trona, Calif., a borax-mining town on the edge of Death Valley and one of those godforsaken American landscapes Wenders has always loved. If Wenders goes shamelessly for the heart here, including a letter from Lana's dead mother, a vodka-swilling Pakistani immigrant named Joe, and even a cross-country road trip to Ground Zero, he's earned it. By the final scene, I was weeping copiously.

If anything, the lack of money and the topical subject matter (Wenders turned to "Land of Plenty" when the forthcoming "Don't Come Knocking," starring Sam Shepard, was delayed) have forced the director to shed the sluggish, sentimental malaise that has plagued his later career. I haven't watched any Wenders films since the great "Wings of Desire" without some groaning and eye-rolling, but if "Land of Plenty" isn't always elegant, it has the inexpressible aura of mystery and wonder that exemplifies his best work. Fans will feel echoes of both "Paris, Texas" and "The State of Things" here. Like those movies, this one is less an angry critique than a sad meditation on the American dream, something Wim Wenders understands well and has never been able to resist.

"Land of Plenty" opens Oct. 12 at the IFC Center in New York.

"Pickpocket" and "Mouchette": A vision of cinema without candy
I have to confess something that ought to disqualify me from this lofty position: I've never been the world's biggest fan of Robert Bresson, the patron saint of French cinema (and, some might argue, of all cinema). I can't quite explain what the deal is. The stripped-down aesthetic of Bresson's short, untalky and mostly undecorated films is magnificently executed. I'm not usually scared off by rigorous moral hoo-ha, or explorations of faith in a postwar Europe losing its religion, blah blah blah. I'll watch Ingmar Bergman's most mediocre films repeatedly, and one could argue they're mining the same philosophical vein.

Until now, at least, I've always admired Bresson's astringent combination of Sartre, Dostoevsky and minimalism more than I've liked it. Even when Bergman is going on about the death of God, or depicting a gruesome family meltdown, he's always informed by the theatrical traditions of melodrama and domestic comedy, and by the entertainment cinema he watched as a child. His fundamental shots are always close-ups of the human face, while Bresson's shots are formal, meticulous, almost architectural. If Bresson ever saw entertainment film, he probably disapproved of it; his 1959 masterpiece "Pickpocket" begins with a crawl that grimly warns the viewer not to expect a thriller. ("Ce film n'est pas du style policier.")

It isn't a thriller, either; as I think I have finally realized after seeing "Pickpocket" three or four times, it's not about crime at all, any more than "Crime and Punishment" is. It's really a study of male arrogance, unhappiness and self-delusion, in the spirit (if not at all in the manner) of "Hamlet" or Balzac's "Lost Illusions." Like most of Bresson's work, it carries a strong level of Christian allegory, which the filmmaker sees (I think) not in terms of organized religion but as a transcendent theme capable of organizing the amoral anarchy of human life.

Bresson made only 14 feature films in a career spanning almost 50 years. His enormous reputation as an avatar of cinematic seriousness rests on a handful of those: Besides "Pickpocket," one could point to "Mouchette," "Au Hasard Balthasar," "The Diary of a Country Priest," "A Man Escaped" and "Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne." Others of his films have their followers -- his last film, the 1983 "L'Argent," is now available in a fine DVD from New Yorker Films -- but lack the same canonical status.

Now that I've damned a great artist with my dunderheaded faint praise, I should make clear that the re-releases of "Pickpocket" and the 1967 "Mouchette," which should soon be coming your way in some form, are riveting, exacting and in their sugar-free fashion beautiful films. Somehow the deliberately affectless performance of Martin La Salle as the doomed protagonist of "Pickpocket" draws you into the character's moral torment in a way all today's wounded method acting never could -- and the wordless sequence where he learns the pickpocket's trade is masterful editing, and one of the only truly comic sequences in Bresson's work.

"Mouchette," which follows the travails of an abused girl in rural France, is if anything a tougher film to take. While La Salle's Michel is offered a degree of earthly redemption in "Pickpocket," the saintly title character played by Nadine Nortier is held at tremendous distance from the viewer. She's an almost anonymous archetype of suffering, and the only escape she can find -- in a clear reference to Joan of Arc, one of Bresson's touchstones -- is metaphysical transcendence. I don't think it's a misogynist film, as some have argued, but it's clearly a mystical one.

"Pickpocket" plays Oct. 7-13 at Film Forum in New York, and will be released on DVD in November. "Mouchette" plays Oct. 14-20 at Film Forum, with engagements in other cities to be announced.

"Zombie Honeymoon": To love and to honor, in sickness and in living death
It would be hopelessly unfair not to spare a few words for Dave Gebroe's "Zombie Honeymoon," a highly disturbing combination of gruesome gore and earnest, tragic romance not encountered since David Cronenberg's "The Fly," if ever. While this low-budget feature begins as frenetic domestic comedy, with newlyweds Denise (Tracy Coogan) and Danny (Graham Sibley) heading to the New Jersey shore to foment big plans for the future, it soon takes a sharp left turn. This isn't into the wacky mock-horror realm one expects, but rather into the serious-filmmaker terrain of love and loss. When Danny is attacked on the beach by a flesh-eating zombie (hey, it could happen) and comes back from the dead as a slavering ghoul, Denise is faced with a fundamental dilemma: Can you still love the person you love after they've changed?

OK, there is some comedy here. Zombie Danny eats a travel agent with bad Harriet Miers makeup and leopard-print pants. But even that scene is sad! The young lovers go to buy tickets for their long-dreamed-of trip to Portugal, and Danny can't stop chowing down on human flesh long enough for that! Coogan and Sibley are absolutely terrific, the script is better than those of most horror movies I see, and after Gebroe settles down, the film's strange blend of tragedy and surreal gore, à la Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, is surprisingly effective. For the right person, and you know who you are, this one's a must-see.

"Zombie Honeymoon" is now playing at the Pioneer Theater in New York. Other cities may follow.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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