Beyond the Multiplex

A talk with the director of an Oscar favorite. Plus: Arty Mexican porn and a quirky movie about an eccentric family starring ... Will Ferrell.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published February 16, 2006 12:00PM (EST)

It's always feast or famine here at Beyond the Multiplex world HQ, and this is one of those feast weeks. (There are often a lot of good little movies in late winter, possibly because the Hollywood pipeline slows to a sludgy trickle while the Oscar picks hog the limelight.) We've got three films all deserving of more attention than I can provide: a wrenching tale of World War II resistance that's probably the leading contender for the foreign-film Oscar, a deliberately daunting work from a young Mexican director who's the toast of the film-snob world, and one of those damaged-family American indies that's flying under the radar and turns out to be full of surprises.

But first, the important stuff: The Bear Tooth Theatrepub (their word, not mine) in Anchorage, Alaska! I've gotten some amazing nominations in my call for the best local theaters doing the movie gods' work in unlikely locations, but based on completely subjective and unscientific criteria I just made up, this one's my favorite.

Yes, Anchoragers (Anchorageites? Anchoragees?), I'm aware that the Bear Tooth makes most of its revenue by showing second-run Hollywood movies ("Chicken Little" and "Aeon Flux" are opening there this week, for the love of Mike). But even that is a noble and much-neglected calling, in my view. Upcoming fare at the B.T. includes Antonioni's "The Passenger," Eli Roth's horror insta-classic "Hostel," Bruno Ganz as Hitler in "Downfall," "The Future of Food," the Alaska Ocean Film Festival and some documentary called "The Outdoorsmen" that I've never heard of but looks right for Anchorage. Plus: It's called the Bear Tooth! It serves beer! And, as reader Sativa Quinn (who clued me in) points out, it's in a metropolis of 300,000 hardy souls in the reddest, and manliest, of all red states.

Keep 'em coming. I've got quite a number of delightful nominations in the hopper, but here's a challenge: Every single entry, so far, has been from a cold-weather city, and in most cases a really cold one. The appeal of moviegoing in a burg where you have to plug your car in overnight to keep the engine block from freezing is fairly obvious, but hey. Don't you people in Pensacola and San Antonio and Tucson and Hilo ever get out of the house to see pretentious films? Or are you all too busy catching some February rays, rebuilding that gnarly Dodge Charger and generally grooving to the beauty of the universe?

"Sophie Scholl: The Final Days": The grandchildren of the Nazis ask their final questions
When I meet Marc Rothemund on a frozen afternoon at the cluttered Manhattan offices of Zeitgeist Films, he's riding an understandable buzz. The rumpled, 38-year-old German director has spent the last year traveling around the world promoting "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days," his film about Germany's most famous anti-Nazi activist, who was arrested and executed in 1943. (If you think I shouldn't give away the ending, sorry. Hey, we all knew how "Titanic" was going to end too.)

As more and more people see "Sophie Scholl," which is anchored by a startling performance from Julia Jentsch in the title role, the stakes keep rising. Rothemund isn't sure how many festival awards he's won, but insists that the pile-up of German Oscars and European Film Awards came as a surprise. Now his film is among the five Oscar nominees in the foreign language film category, and while handicapping Academy voters is a fool's game, let's just say that an inspirational work about the struggle against Nazism is always going to have the inside track.

If the explosive South African film "Tsotsi," which opens next week, is seen as the other major contender, then maybe the Israeli-Palestinian film "Paradise Now" is the longest of all long shots. As reported this week in the Jerusalem Post, an online petition is now circulating asking the Academy to withdraw its nomination from Hany Abu-Assad's film, which portrays the final hours of two would-be suicide bombers from the West Bank. "By ignoring the film's message and the implications of this message," writes Yossi Zur, an Israeli who lost his 17-year-old son to a terrorist bombing, "those that chose to award this film a prize have become part of the evil chain of terror and accomplices to the next suicide murders." (I'll return to this question during Oscar week.)

Let's get back to "Sophie Scholl," which turns out not to be spinach cinema. It's a crisply made, absorbing human drama that frames its moral confrontation between good and evil in universal terms. On one hand, it's a specific episode from the short, unhappy history of Nazi Germany; Rothemund and screenwriter Fred Breinersdorfer have relied on extensive research, interviews with eyewitnesses, and Gestapo records recently recovered from the East German government archives. On the other, Sophie Scholl is an archetypal character, a lonely individual who accepts the dire consequences of standing up for justice in an unjust situation, putting her faith in the future.

Sophie and her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs), along with a handful of other Munich university students who made up a group called the White Rose, engaged only in mild resistance: They were evangelical Protestants who dared to distribute leaflets criticizing Hitler's destructive war and the massacre of innocents on the Eastern front, and to spread reports that Jews and others were being sent to concentration camps. (The full scale of the Holocaust was not yet known, but the White Rose students had a pretty solid inkling.)

But as the film makes clear, their activities seemed especially dangerous to the functionaries of Nazism. The leaflets themselves are extraordinary: "Every word that comes from Hitler's mouth is a lie," one announces. "For Hitler and his followers, there is no punishment on Earth commensurate with their crimes." It ends: "We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!"

Indeed, the students were hoping to prod the conscience of the German people, who by 1943 were at least dimly aware that they were losing the war and that something prodigiously rotten was happening beneath all that virile, Fatherland propaganda and Hitler's increasingly nutzoid oratory. At their show trial before one of Hitler's shrieking, attack-dog judges, the Scholls -- both in the film and in real life -- calmly observe that he and the rest of the court officers will soon be standing before the bar of judgment, and that the world is not likely to judge them kindly. One lawyer present remembered later that the faces of people in the courtroom were "pale with fear -- the fear that spread outward from the judge's desk."

This reversal, in which Sophie and her brother, en route to inevitable conviction and execution, seem more like legitimate authorities than those prosecuting them, lies at the heart of the picture. Sophie's confrontation with a Gestapo interrogator named Mohr (Gerald Alexander Held), a more or less regular German, a career cop who is a fellow traveler rather than a committed Nazi, is Rothemund's centerpiece. At first Sophie lies to save herself, as anyone would, and nearly succeeds in escaping. But as the truth emerges she becomes increasingly defiant, and when Mohr tries to offer a deal that will save her life, it seems increasingly that he is begging her for some kind of redemption or forgiveness he won't find.

All that might be dry Dostoevskian philosophical drama if not for the actors involved. In Jentsch's extraordinary performance, Sophie is a real girl with no death wish, who must face the fact that her predicament, both personally and ethically, can have no other conclusion. Held, meanwhile, makes you see Mohr's humanity without losing sight of the horrible compromises he has made. He longs for Sophie to see the reasonableness, the common sense, of his actions, but no longer believes in them himself.

Americans have barely heard of Sophie Scholl or the White Rose. But she's incredibly famous in Germany, right?

We have 190 schools in Germany named after Sophie Scholl. When the biggest German TV station asked the audience who were the best Germans of all times, [former West German Chancellor] Konrad Adenauer won, but Hans and Sophie Scholl were rated No. 4. People under 30, however, voted Hans and Sophie Scholl far ahead.

Why are younger people so interested in an episode that, as dramatic as it was, occurred more than 60 years ago?

I think and hope that they share the same interest that I have. We are the grandchildren's generation. You know, after World War II Germany was totally destroyed, and it took many years to reconstruct the country. Then, after 1961 there was the Cold War. In 1990 there was unification, which was very emotional for all Germans, East and West. Now Germany is reconstructed, reunited, and there is no Cold War. Our minds are open for the grandchildren to ask questions of their grandparents.

I am a director of the last generation that can ask eyewitnesses. The murderers, the resistance fighters, the followers [he actually said "follow-men," which is a terrific word] -- they all will die in the next few years. It's the last chance to ask them about what happened, and I think this is rather magical. Many people like me ask their grandparents about this time, and the majority -- of course the murderers, but also the follow-men, because they have a bad conscience -- refuse totally to talk about it. Why they shouted "Heil Hitler!" why they took the money [from murdered or exiled Jews] without asking where the money came from.

Let's be honest: In the context of the Nazi regime, there were very few Germans with the courage to speak out the way Sophie Scholl and her brother did.

Much too few, of course. I have traveled around the world for 12 months, I have been in South America, Asia, China, Korea, Japan. I have been in Jerusalem. I have been in all the European countries that suffered so much from the Nazis, and I can say that 95 percent of the people on this planet don't know anything about even one German resistance fighter. They think that all Germans were Nazis and all Nazis were murderers. That's not how you learn from the past.

I'm proud that this true story of Sophie Scholl and the performance of Julia Jentsch has touched the hearts of people around the world. They don't see it as a German movie, so much, because so many countries have suffered under dictatorships. In South America, that was true until the '70s or '80s. In South Korea. And in all countries that suffered under dictatorships, there were always people who resisted. And I'm glad that the world accepts that there were at least a few Germans who were fighting for freedom, fighting to save the Jews, giving their lives.

What motivated the members of the White Rose? Did they understand what was happening to the Jews?

I think they knew everything. In the end of the movie "Downfall," we see Hitler's original secretary, Traudl Jünge. Years after the war, in Munich, she passed by a sign with information about Sophie Scholl. She learned that the day when she started to work as a secretary for Hitler was exactly the same day Sophie Scholl was executed. So years after the war, she understood that if you wanted to know what was happening, you could have known.

All the members of the White Rose, especially Hans Scholl, had been medical aides on the Eastern Front. They printed the first four leaflets at the university, and then they spent three months at the Eastern Front, where they witnessed the mass killings of women and children. When they returned to Munich in the winter of '42, they decided they had to print many more leaflets, thousands of leaflets, and spread them all over Germany. They were really in shock about what they had seen.

It was also important to them that the air raids by American and British bombers began in the summer of '42. In January of '43, the German government had to admit the loss of the battle of Stalingrad. As you learn in the film, there was a small uprising at the university when the female students were told, "Stop studying and bear children for the Führer." So they were almost enthusiastic about a possible near end to the war, after eight months of bombing. They thought that the students, the people of Munich, shared their belief that victory was no longer possible after Stalingrad. They would never have believed that the war would go on for two more years.

The education of Hans and Sophie was, in my mind, the most important factor. I learned a lot about their father, who educated them, from interviewing their last surviving sister. He taught them to feel empathy for weaker people, and to be curious: Don't believe what people tell you, get other information. Sophie and Hans were in the Hitler Youth! Sophie had a picture of Hitler in her room, and her father didn't forbid it. He just told her: "If you have a photo of Hitler in your room" -- because she believed all the propaganda at first -- "just educate yourself, get some information." He was hoping she would take it down by herself, which she did.

Do you think your generation of Germans, as you say, the grandchildren of the Nazi generation, have a special responsibility to share what you can learn about that period with the world?

Of course. I was born in 1968, so I don't feel any guilt. I really can't. But I do feel the responsibility. There are still Nazis in Germany, and political parties that are close to fascism. But everyone has a responsibility to learn from the past, for the future. That also means discussing the past, and the future, with other people. But at the beginning it's a very personal thing: You learn about the past for yourself. Maybe secondly, you talk about it with other people.

For at least some Americans, it will be painful to watch this movie. To Sophie Scholl, America was the defender of freedom that was going to rescue Germany from evil. Today, our role in the world is not so clear. Of course nobody gets beheaded for speaking out against the war or the government. But you can be ridiculed in public, called treasonous and unpatriotic, accused of undermining our troops, and so on -- all things that happen to Sophie before they kill her. It's not the same, but it strikes uncomfortably close to home.

I would never try to get this movie mixed up with American issues about Bush or the war. But I am interested to see it start a discussion about the present situation in America. I have heard a lot of Americans say they will recommend this movie to their friends and relatives, not to learn something about Germany, but to see a true story about a young woman who fights for human rights and freedom.

I would never compare Bush and Hitler. Never. But you can examine the role of propaganda, for example. Bush convinced the American people that there was a connection between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, or that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so that even the Democrats believed the propaganda. Now they are aware of their error, and that means they have a responsibility not to repeat it -- for example, in Iran. That's what Sophie Scholl and the White Rose stands for, the responsibility of every member of human society to be empathetic, to be curious, to learn the truth.

"Sophie Scholl: The Final Days" opens Feb. 17 at Film Forum in New York; Feb. 24 in Los Angeles; March 3 in San Francisco; March 10 in Palm Springs, Calif.; March 17 in Boston, Seattle and Sunrise, Fla.; March 24 in Indianapolis and Washington; and March 31 in Chicago, Minneapolis and Philadelphia, with other cities to follow.

"Battle in Heaven": The new Tarkovsky, or obscurantist Mexi-porn? Maybe it's both
I need to talk to someone about Carlos Reygadas' "Battle in Heaven." I've needed to ever since walking out of that cramped screening room on Seventh Avenue where creepy people like me watch movies in the middle of the day. Is that someone you?

Here's the problem, as I see it: Reygadas is already a famous figure within the tiny, insular world of international art film, which means both that a fair number of smart if unbelievably pretentious people are drawn to his work and that hardly any regular moviegoers have the faintest idea who he is. This creates currents of mini-hype and mini-backlash that are difficult to avoid, although I have tried. Considering his work independent of that context is especially hard, because almost nobody outside that context will see it (unless it gets sold in porn outlets by accident).

Reygadas is a 34-year-old former lawyer from Mexico City who makes ambitious, arty dramas with nonprofessional actors, where plot is mostly beside the point, real settings and situations are emphasized and the camerawork is both intimate and meticulous. In his first film, "Japón" (which I haven't seen), as well as in this one, the actors engage in real sex for the camera. Yes, I know, this is a trope or whatever in current cinema. I'm sick of talking about it. Reygadas has been constantly compared to Andrei Tarkovsky, Abbas Kiarostami or Michelangelo Antonioni by his admirers, which is kind of a stretch after two films, I have to say.

Maybe it's just me, but I don't remember the scene in "Andrei Rublev" or "Through the Olive Trees" where a beautiful hippie-punk chick with seashells in her hair is on her knees blowing a big fat ugly guy in an unfurnished room. OK, maybe that's a cheap shot and maybe it's not. But that is how "Battle in Heaven" begins (and ends), and it sort of summarizes the general, er, thrust of the picture.

Reygadas is a masterfully accomplished image-maker even at this early stage -- quite seriously, those scenes are beautifully shot -- and I can see where the comparisons come from. He wants to jolt us awake with virtually every frame of his film, to make us see his distinctly unglamorous characters anew with a sense of wonder, as if they had just been born or were just about to meet their God. (Several people do die in this movie -- and unlike the sex, that's presumably cinematic illusion.) I think all of that is a defensive and maybe a laudable artistic goal, and there are mysteriously powerful shots in "Battle in Heaven" that outdo anything I've seen in the last year.

Traffic flows along the Periférico, the big freeway encircling Mexico City. Troops raise the flag outside the National Palace in predawn darkness. A guy takes his car to a gas station where the proprietor is playing symphonic music, inappropriately loudly. During a sex scene (not the one already mentioned), Reygadas' camera wanders out the window into the surrounding middle-class neighborhood, observing a couple of guys putting up a satellite antenna, some kids playing soccer, and a batch of shampoo bottles arrayed precariously on an adjoining window ledge. I feel like I could watch that stuff all day.

Fortunately or not, "Battle in Heaven" also has a halfhearted plot involving a poor couple who kidnap a baby with disastrous results. The husband in this couple (Marcos Hernández) is also the blow-job recipient in the first scene. He's the chauffeur to a government official, while the lovely, seashell-clad provider (Anapola Mushkadiz) is that official's daughter, who moonlights as a hooker for reasons we never learn. The film also has an impenetrable religious subtext, or maybe just text, along with some glancing references to the issue of wealth and class, and some scenes filmed in Mexico City's chaotic subway system, shot to be as full of irritating glare and noise as possible.

I don't think I have a problem with the blow-job scene as such, or with another still more memorable sex act you see in this film. Where I come down, at this point, is feeling that Reygadas is an undeniably important artist hewing his own path, but who is also self-consciously playing to the tastes of a tiny elite audience that craves obscurantism, confrontation and heavy-handed symbolism. Still, I really want you to see this. Then I'll have somebody to talk about it with.

"Battle in Heaven" opens Feb. 17 at the Angelika Film Center in New York and Feb. 24 in Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.

"Winter Passing": Mom and Dad are famous writers, but no squids or whales in sight
So "Winter Passing" is an accomplished directorial debut, on a modest scale, with a nice script and a killer cast. It's one of those minor-key stories where a disillusioned kid in the big city -- it's Zooey Deschanel, playing a drugged-out Lower East Side actress named Reese -- goes home to her screwed-up family in the heartland and finds some measure of redemption. It's also one of those stories about having odd, '60s-refugee parents: Reese's dad is a reclusive, J.D. Salinger-esque writer named Don Holden (Ed Harris), who wrote a major novel called "People's Park" and has been hiding out on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan almost ever since.

It's also one of those stories where a cast of eccentrics make their own family life, with some bumps and bruises along the way. Reese's mom, also a well-known writer, has died (though we don't learn the details for a while), and she's gone home to dig out a cache of family letters for which a hawk-eyed New York editor has offered her a cool $100,000. She finds Don sleeping in the garage among your stereotypical arrangement of bourbon bottles, typewriter and filth, while a silken-faced English girl (Amelia Warner) and a damaged Christian rocker, Corbit (Will Ferrell), have taken over the house where she grew up.

Yes, that's right, I said Will Ferrell was in this movie, and if it weren't pretty good on its own terms he'd be worth the price of admission by himself. Corbit has a special-ed haircut and some poorly applied eye shadow, and he tends to say "right on" a lot, whether it's appropriate in context or not. But he's a sympathetic figure, not an object of derision, and he reminds you that Ferrell treats all his overly sincere and hypercommitted characters with compassion, even in the most trivial comic vehicle. (Not that comedy isn't important and stuff.) Plus he performs a version of the Eagles' "I Can't Tell You Why" that nearly tops his cover of "Dust in the Wind" from "Old School."

So "Winter Passing," a promising directing debut from New York playwright Adam Rapp, is getting a low-rent release from a small distributor because -- well, why, exactly? Because it's conventionally structured, and you mostly know what's going to happen? No, that's not it. It must be because people in Hollywood are idiots who can't tell their asses from a hole in the ground. I don't know for a fact that no major studio wanted a movie that sounded, in a vague and general way, too much like "The Squid and the Whale." But that's plausible, and if so it's approximately the dumbest thing ever. Deschanel is great, with her feral eyes and Joey Ramone shag haircut, and Ferrell is fantastic. This one's worth the effort to find.

"Winter Passing" opens Feb. 17 in New York and Los Angeles, with other cities to follow.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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