Some Germans

by Stanley Kauffmann | April 21, 2010

Everyone Else (Cinema Group)
Nobody's Perfect (Lorber Films)

It would be a stretch to call Everyone Else a postmodernist work, but it is hard to imagine its existence if postmodernism had not preceded it. The closing sequence does have a climactic tone, but in the main Ade strives, as do so many contemporary artists, to avoid the “arrangement” of life. She wants the story to seem as if it merely occurred and she happened to be around to observe it. Her film cannot have the beat and pleasure of structure that a Bergman film gives us: we get instead a newly empowered eavesdropping. Ade is by no means the first film-maker to treat material this way—even the recent gentle Mid-August Lunch does it—but she almost makes her film’s avoidance of conventional dramatic structure into its very reason for being.

The setting is Sardinia. A young German couple, Chris and Gitti, are vacationing there in his mother’s villa. He is an architect, quite successful; she is a publicist for a rock group (called by an English name, The Shames). Chris has been invited to inspect another villa with perhaps the bid to renovate it, though his larger concern just now is his chance in a design competition that he has entered. Still, this motif is kept relatively low under the daily doings, as are the phone calls that she gets from her rock group.

At the start they are being visited by his sister with her small children, and Gitti is teaching a little girl a lesson in manners. The lesson relates to emotional candor, a factor (we learn) in Gitti’s and Chris’s lives. After the sister and her brood depart, the film focuses on our couple. Two other couples figure later, one of them substantially, but the real subjects are the beings, the breathings, the daily flares of feeling of Chris and Gitti. The concentration is so intense that, even though the whole work is rich with the sun and sheer gorgeousness of Sardinia, we rarely see any Sardinians.

Gitti meets one of the other couples while shopping and accepts an invitation to go boating with them, but Chris sulks—he doesn’t want company—and we never see the trip. He himself ducks meeting a man he knows named Hans, who by coincidence is also vacationing on the island with his wife, Sana. Eventually Chris and Gitti are trapped into dinner with them. Sana is pregnant, and through some curious twist—possibly jealousy—this fact seems to goad Gitti into unpleasantness with Hans. The evening ends somewhat abruptly.

The actions of the film are not any more cumulative than life usually is. Its growth is in the growth of our acquaintance with Chris and Gitti, which is seductive in part just because it is available. We follow their meals, their snoozes, their beach trips, their argument about going to a disco; we even share the cuteness of phrase and play that couples create quite privately. Sex is of course part of their beings, and there are two sex scenes—needed to make the film complete—but Ade cloaks them in shadow so that we get them as integral rather than sensational.

Admittedly, within this record of accompaniment is a theme that is sometimes visible: commitment, which seems to interest Gitti more than Chris—parenthood, possible marriage. The last sequence of the film, the only one that could be called dramatic, is tenuously related to Gitti’s opening sequence with the little girl. But this is the one element in the screenplay that could be called a pattern. Then, without a “finish,” the film simply stops. Ade avoids any kind of fade-out. We have seen, she implies, all that we need to know about these two at this time in their lives, so we leave.

Obviously Ade has put heavy responsibility for the film’s quality on her two principals. She is justified. Lars Eidinger, as Chris, is just attractive enough, and he has polished a mode of acting that fits perfectly—old-timers might call it behaving, not acting. Gitti needs more because she is much more mercurial in her feelings, and Birgit Minichmayr easily handles the range. Her face, not immediately stunning, grows closer to beauty throughout. In these performances, in their impulses and lulls, we feel that we have been admitted to intimacies.

Ade uses the camera securely. Nothing seems to be composed for it, it just happens to be in the right place when needed. At the last, her film cannot compare with her model Bergman, but at least she shows that truth can come in different sizes.

From Germany, too, arrives a documentary called NoBody’s Perfect that is warm, appealing, and tinged with humor. All this is somewhat unexpected, because it is about some victims of thalidomide seen fifty years later. The director, Niko von Glasow, who has made four previous films, is himself a victim, with diminutive arms and three-inch hands.

For those who don’t remember, between 1957 and 1961 a pharmaceutical plague struck several countries, chiefly Germany and Britain. A drug called thalidomide was put on the market by a German firm, to be used by pregnant women as a cure for morning sickness and as a sedative. Before the drug was found to be harmful for these purposes, it caused about ten thousand defective births. The drug affected the baby’s limbs rather than torso or head. American newsmagazines were filled with photos of beautiful babies with shriveled arms, or legs, or arms and legs. About 50 percent of the thalidomide babies are still alive. In Germany and Britain these people receive skimpy compensation from their governments. One of Glasow’s purposes in this film is to help make the drug company supplement these payments: the company found legal means to quit long ago.

But NoBody’s Perfect is, very soon and most powerfully, much more than a propaganda piece. Glasow found eleven victims, mostly German, some British, of considerable interest, and interviewed them in intelligent and comprehending ways, and always with pictorial zest. These people, now in their early fifties, are an actor, an astrophysicist, a teacher of horseback riding, a painter (with her feet), a masseur, a solicitor, a politician, a gardener, a receptionist, and one who is called simply a mother. And the film-maker. All of them are attractively composed persons. (Glasow doesn’t mention—probably assuming that he needn’t—the most famous victim, the distinguished baritone Thomas Quasthoff, who is now world-renowned.)

Glasow’s purpose was to find victims who had made their way, however it was, and who would therefore be self-confident enough to be interviewed and to pose nude for a calendar. This calendar would be used for propaganda purposes against the drug tycoons, to get more money especially for those who have done less well. As Glasow makes his interviewing way along, keenly intelligent and affable, he takes his nude shots—always at some distance—and finishes with his nude self frolicking with his young (fully clothed) normal daughter. And then there’s a banquet for all of them.

Yet this film is nowhere near the sickening finish of many movies, a Technicolor affirmation of the human spirit marching bravely on toward the dawn. These people are for the most part more balanced than beatific. Suicide, some of them say, was once considered and rejected. My inference about them all is that at the earliest sentient age, each of them saw his or her disadvantages, then thought, “A person has now arrived in the world who has shriveled limbs and my name. That is grimly that. Now let’s get on with it.” It is more than courage: it is a triumph of salubrious ego over facts. The film does not jerk tears: it shames us who are stronger.

At the end Glasow tries to take a life-size nude photo to the drug firm’s headquarters. His film would be well off without this Michael Moore stunt. Better is his title, adapted perhaps from the last line of Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. By capitalizing the b in the first word, it fits.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic of The New Republic.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/some-germans