List: The Movies of Germany

MV5BMTg1NzE3NTQ1Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTI1Njk3MTI@._V1_Continuing our summer vacation in the movies, we’re going to a different European country each Thursday in August. This week it’s Germany. This list is not of my picks for the best movies that happen to be set in Germany but the best portrayals of the country or part of it that I’ve seen in the movies. So here are the 10 best portrayals of Germany in the movies.

 

10. Morris from America (2016)

In one of the great coming-of-age films, Morris is an African American 13-year-old living in Germany. His attempts to fit in and to bring his old life in America with him to Germany give us a unique picture of German culture through the eyes of teenagers.

 

 

9. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

American politics and American criminal justice are placed in Germany for the famous Nuremberg trials of Nazi war crimes. The intense rarely leaves the court room, but when it does it shows the ruins of a city destroyed mostly by the actions of its own people. What we see of this historical picture of Nuremberg in a few scenes outside the courtroom is the same reality we see among the Germans inside the courtroom in an intimate, personal way.

 

8. The Blue Angel (1930)

This journey into the cultural and moral world of 1920s Germany, we follow a teacher who has the responsibility not only of teaching a curriculum to his high school students but to be an example of morality to them. He’s done a good job most of his life until a seductress at a local cabaret turns his reputation and everything he believes about himself and about right and wrong upside down.

 

7. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

The plot to kill Hitler begins and France. As the story progresses, people from every Allied country get involved, but the closer they get to carrying out their plan, the more of them show up in Germany. The time in Germany is spent mostly in bars and other places where the conspirators can trick Nazis enough Nazis to keep their plans alive. The picture of Nazi Germany that Tarantino gives us is a picture of the perpetrators enjoying all the evil they were accomplishing unaware of what is coming against them.

 

6. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

The movie is set during a punk rocker’s American tour, but we see many flashbacks to his life in Germany overlapping with many of the country’s most important events between the 1960s and 80s. And his act itself, both the songs and the stories he tells about his life back in Germany, take us on a tour of Germany even when the main character is in the U.S.

 

5. Bridge of Spies (2015)

This may look like a very strange choice for this list since it’s set almost entirely in New York City developing the relationship between a lawyer and the alleged Communist spy he’s defending. But the whole point of the movie is to get the spy to the bridge. That bridge of course is Glienicke Bridge in Berlin. Because the scenes that takes place at the bridge are so spectacular and this is the only movie I know of to recreate the common Cold War use of the bridge, it offers a picture of Germany that no other movie does even if it is a very short one.

 

4. Cabaret (1972)

Like The Blue Angel, Bob Fosse’s musical takes us on a journey of the moral and psychological world of thought in Germany but this time shortly before WWII. Obviously the cabarets and their prostitutes are the centerpiece of this moral journey but everything that happens in the cabaret is juxtaposed with the rise of the Nazi party showing Sally Bowles’ love of “divine decadence” as having a role in the decline of morality of the nation. Even though the characters in the cabaret are politically opposed to Naziism, the movie shows them as a part of what allowed the movement to happen.

 

3. A Foreign Affair (1948)

Marlene Dietrich sings a song called “The Ruins of Berlin.” While she sings it, we so those ruins very vividly. The movie is about the attempts at reconstruction after WWII, so we see both a very ugly (physically and morally) Berlin and the attempt to make a new, better city.

 

2. Wings of Desire (1987)

The original German title of Wim Wenders’ masterpiece translates to “The Heavens over Berlin.” We see the city of Berlin from the point of view of two angels assigned to watch over it. That’s all they do, watch it. It sounds like it must get boring for the angels, but for us to get to watch over Berlin and its people for a couple hours is fascinating and intreguing.

 

1. Metropolis (1927)

Fritz Lang’s sci-fi masterpiece is set in a Germany of the future, so the sets and costumes might not look much like 1927 Germany, but the story is about the very real crisis the nation found itself in. So even though we get a futuristic facade with the production design, we get the greatest picture of the real Germany the movies have ever given us. Financial crises cause a perceived need for a strict class system, and any breaches of that system are met with strong resistance and violence. The story is looking for a pair of hands (a mediator) to join the heart (the workers) to the head (the elite). Doesn’t sound too far fetched does it?

 

Wings of Desire (1987)

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The only thing that the angels in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire have in common with those found in the writings and worldviews of the world’s most prominent religions is that they are eternal beings. They don’t intervene with world affairs. They aren’t relationally connected to any deity. They have no sense of purpose or duty in their existence. They just observe humanity. They are able to hear the innermost thoughts of people, but they can’t do anything about what they learn. They just keep hearing, and they just keep existing.

Like many of my other favorite foreign films (including Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru and Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7) and two of my favorite American movies (Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Terrance Mallick’s The Tree of Life), Wings of Desire is not as much of a story as it is a meditation. Wings of Desire is a meditation on loneliness, of being a spectator of life rather than a person who fully lives and engages with reality. There was an American remake of the film in 1998 starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan called City of Angels that I never saw, but based on the two very popular songs from the movie’s soundtrack, it’s obvious that the filmmakers completely Americanized it, gave it a story, and missed the remarkable feel of this great film. That’s not to say the remake is bad, I haven’t seen it, so I won’t do that, but I do know that it is definitely a completely different artistic vision and a complete different experience for viewers.

The Goo Goo Dolls song “Iris” is the romantic story of willingness to sacrifice eternity for the woman he’s in love with. But the angel in Wings of Desire doesn’t give up his immortality for a woman. He does experience romance after becoming human, but he gives up his immortality to experience anything, to drink a cup of coffee, to feel the sun, he even mentions wanting to feel pain, not just to experience romance. He gives up his mortality so he can feel and experience and be far removed from the isolated role of inactive observer that he has held for eternity past.

The Alanis Morisette song “Uninvited” is a very dark song about the horrendous price to be paid if the character makes the decision to sacrifice his immortality. But the angel in Wings of Desire doesn’t have to make a sacrifice at all. It’s obviously a difficult decision, if it wasn’t it wouldn’t have taken him millennia to make it. But he decides that knowing that he will die some day is a good price to pay for having the opportunity to live. That’s a very rational decision. The Alanis Morisette song suggests that the remake probably added a Judeo-Christian idea of angels to the story, bringing the sacrificial part of the story in making it so that becoming human would not be a rational decision for its character.

Wings of Desire creates its own world where angels just exist and observe. These angels are a metaphor for the tendency so many of us have to watch the lives of others, to compare ourselves to others, and to seek what we observe in others so intently that we miss out on living the lives we were created to live. We get so busy with things that don’t matter that we miss the miracles in simplest things of life. Watching the angel shake a man’s hand and enjoy his first cup of coffee are reminders of how the simplest of joys can be ways that we learn to really live.

List: Movies about France

Continuing our summer vacation in the movies, we’re going to a different European country each Thursday in August. This week it’s France. This list is not my picks for the best movies that happen to be set in France but the best portrayals of the country or part of the country that I’ve seen in the movies.

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10. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

The seaside community of Rochefort gives us beautiful scenery and a delightful musical comedy from masterful director Jacque Demy (the first of three films he has on this list).

 

9. The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

The only movie I know of that takes place at the Tour de France, Sylvain Chomet’s wildly drawn animated film introduces us to some crazy old women (the triplets), a bizarre kidnapping, and a hero dog all centered around France’s great sporting event.

 

8. Lili (1953)

Leslie Caron plays Lili, a 17-year old trying to find a way to live after the death of her father. She does so through working at one of the great carnivals so common in provincial France locations in the first half of the 20th century.

 

7. The Rules of the Game (1939)

A harsh indictment on the urban upper class France of his time, Jean Renoir’s comedy both pokes of the rampant immorality and oppression against servants in his society in what is probably the angriest and most incendiary comedy of all times that still manages to stay hilarious every second.

 

6. Ratatouille (2007)

What would a trip to France be without the food? Master chef Remy the Rat introduced not just his co-workers and friends, but the entire world to what was once was known as a peasant dish but has become a staple at fine-dining restaurants worldwide only in the last 10 years thanks to Remy and Disney/Pixar.

 

5. Lola (1961)

The second Jacque Demy film on the list, this tale of the joys and heartbreak of first love and its effect on entire life spans is set in Nantes. The coastal views are beautiful, and the film ends at one of the carnivals I mentioned with Lili a few movies earlier.

 

4. Hugo (2011)

Martin Scorsese’s family movie about film preservation is one of the strangest phrases I’ve ever said. The strangest thing about Hugo is how wonderfully it works. And it works so well in part because of the extravagantly beautiful sets that are equal parts 1931 France and a fantasy world created by Scorsese for a spectacular 3-D interpretation of Brian Selznick’s novel. French literature, French architecture, French music, and especially French film (and even more especially Georges Méliès’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon) are beautifully presented in Martin Scorsese’s family movie about film preservation.

 

3. Les Misérables (2012)

This masterful adaptation of the Broadway musical that itself adapted the Victor Hugo novel of the same name takes us to a very ugly France during the French Revolution. But the hope, the faith, and the willingness to fight for what is right in its characters bring the beauties of France to light even within the ugliest of situations.

 

2. Charade (1963)

Stanley Donen’s comedic espionage thriller finds Audrey Hepburn running for her life with the assistance of many people though she never knows (and neither do we) if they’re actually out to help her or to kill her. All the chasing is done throughout Paris, and we see many sites of the city as we watch her frantically run, hide and fight for her life however she can.

 

1. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

The best portrait of France that I know of in the movies is Jacque Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Set in the town of Cherbourg, the title refers to the umbrella shop that the main character helps run with her mother who owns it. The 1960s pastel colors bring the streets to life even in the rainiest of scenes, and with a title like this, you can expect that it’s raining most of the time but that never dampens the color and the beauty of this magical, romantic trip to France.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)

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We learn right away that Cleo has a doctor’s appointment in two hours where she’ll receive the results of tests that will tell whether or not she has cancer and the prognosis if she does. The movie does just exactly what the title tells us it will. We follow Cleo for those two hours leading up to the appointment.

We see moments of excitement where she’s convinced she’s going to get good news, and even though she doesn’t have any good reason to anticipate any of the potential answers (only the tests can answer those question), she convinces us that she’s going to be okay and we share in her joy. We also see moments where she’s convinced she’s dying. Again, she’s so convinced that she convinces us, and we feel her despair.

Then there are the moments where she just tries to live her life. She’s a professional singer, and the time she spends in the studio is filled with conflict that we realize isn’t normal. She usually gets along well with her band and the songwriter she works with, but everything’s different this day. She doesn’t express any of what she’s going through personally to her co-workers, but we can tell exactly what she’s thinking and feeling every second that she’s physically at work but mentally at that appointment that hasn’t come yet.

Corinne Marchand plays Cleo, and through most of the movie Cleo doesn’t do very much. The world goes on around her. We hear conversations going on that aren’t relevant to Cleo and therefore aren’t important to the story or to us. What matters is what’s going on inside of Cleo as the world goes on around her, while she’s going through the most anguish and anxiety she’s ever experienced in her life. Corinne Marchand makes us able to understand what’s going on inside of Cleo every second of the movie because of how expressive she is as an actor when she doesn’t speak.

Cleo from 5 to 7 is a challenging film because we’re expected to think and feel with the character, not follow a story. We’re expected to build empathy on our own, not because the story has had an emotional impact on us but just because of what she’s going through. That’s precisely what makes it a masterpiece. Corinne Marchand’s acting performance and Agnes Varda’s direction take us inside the soul of Cleo for those two hour leading up to her appointment.

As we focus on Cleo’s mental and emotional state as she awaits the news of her own mortality, we are confronted with our own views on mortality. It allows us to experience what it feels like to wait for that news and asks us to try to keep living in the midst of the waiting, just like Cleo’s forced to. But’s it not the type of living we’re used to. It’s a type of living that focuses on the reality of death, confronting our beliefs about death and what comes after death and also confronting our current life and how we’ll live differently if we get good news. Even though the movie reveals the results of Cleo’s tests at the end of the movie, they really don’t matter to our experience. As we’ve been faced with Cleo’s traumatic wait, we’re forced into our very own traumatic meditation where we ask the same questions Cleo does and we think about the same things Cleo does because they are universal realities that we all must confront but usually don’t until in a situation like Cleo’s. And going through it with Cleo is challenging and painful but ultimately hopeful and rewarding dependent on the conclusions we come to during this meditation on the shortness of life.

List: Movies of the UK

Continuing our summer vacation in the movies, we’ll go to a different European country each Thursday in August. Starting with movies related to the United Kingdom, this list is not my picks for the best movies that happen to be set in the UK but the best portrayals of the country or part of the country that I’ve seen in the movies.

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10. Mrs. Miniver (1942)

William Wyler’s first WWII film takes us to the home front in a rural village on the outskirts of London. The beauty of the countryside and the strikingly different values of the British home front compared the American home front (at least in the movies) are very special. The movie makes Kay Miniver a real war hero, more intimately involved in the efforts of her husband and son that what we see from the American perspective where soldiers’ wives were most concerned with the affairs at home, doing the work to make up for the absent family member.

 

9. The Ruling Class (1972)

The funniest movie about British parliament ever made, Peter O’Toole’s character becomes an English lord after the death of his father by hanging as the result of a cross-dressing accident. If that’s not weird enough, Peter O’Toole’s character thinks he’s Jesus, and the rest of the political system has to adapt his insane ramblings and quirky ideas that don’t allow anybody to get anything done. The movie harshly criticizes the self-aggrandizement and self-absorption seen in the British politics of the time. But it’s a great movie for Americans right now as this movie’s hilarious portrayal of a chaotic, cult-like political system is something we’ve become very familiar with over the last 6 months.

 

8. The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Now, the funniest movie about British royalty ever made. Charles Laughton plays Henry VIII with all his murderous, sexually immoral, and misogynist ways and an affinity for devouring capons in the funniest scene of the movie. The idea of telling the true, dark, and deeply disturbing story of Henry VIII and the executions of his wives accurately with a crazy comedic twist was unheard of in 1933, making this a landmark, terribly under-seen and underrated masterpiece.

 

7. The Quiet Man (1952)

John Ford’s romantic comedy finds John Wayne in Ireland, and this movie has to be on this for its sheer beauty. Every scene shows a grand picture of rural Ireland that is unforgettable.

 

6. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

The greatest of all swashbuckling epics shows an England of a time gone by that continues to live on in legend and imagination. Errol Flynn’s physically demanding performance of Robin Hood takes us to this legendary England of our imaginations.

 

5. Wuthering Heights (1939)

The beautiful home that shares its name with the title of Bronte’s novel is brought to life in William Wyler’s film. The architecture and the courtyard surrounding the house gives some of the best production design in film history to recreate this Victorian set.

 

4. The Queen (2006)

After a couple political comedies earlier on the last, the best British political movie I’ve ever seen is The Queen. Interestingly, the movie doesn’t focus much on politics or what it means to be the queen. It’s about the nation-wide grief that country experienced at the loss of Princess Diana all through the eyes of Diana’s most prominent detractor.

 

3. Mary Poppins (1964)

The magical nanny is our tour guide to a fanciful version of London in the early 1900s. The realistic sets show us a lot what it must’ve looked like until we get to get jump in Burt’s paintings with Burt, Mary and the kids.

 

2. The Full Monty (1997)

Sheffield…a city on the move. So the movie begins, but that beginning is a news reel from quite a while before our story begins. The Sheffield of The Full Monty is not a city on the move but a city of hurt and desperation. Yet the hope that these characters experience as they join together gives a feel for the spirit of Sheffield.

1. Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Ang Lee directs and Emma Thompson stars, but she doesn’t star as much as an actress as she does as a writer. Her adaptation of Jane Austen’s lesser work takes a novel that’s almost incomprehensible in parts and has a terrible ending contrary to the earlier development of the characters and transforms it into one of the most enchanting films ever made. The movie takes us to the location, but much more it transports us to the society of 1700s rural England, to the norms that are unjust but the people who overcome those injustices. Inspiring, funny, romantic, and absolutely joyous in every second we spend in Victorian-era London, Sense and Sensibility is the best movie journey to the UK I’ve ever seen.

The Full Monty (1997)

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Desperate times calls for desperate measures, so the adage goes. Peter Cattaneo’s little gem shows the results of this in a hilarious, sensitive, and extremely intelligent way.  The great British comedy made a surprising splash in America in 1997 making more money than any low-budget foreign film before it and receiving four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture at a time when there were only five Best Picture nominees, and comedies were hardly ever nominated.

Beginning with an actual news reel video advertising Sheffield as an economic powerhouse in England because of its steel mining, the rest of the movie shows how much Sheffield changed in the 25 years after that news reel. The characters we get to know are all men who are unemployed, underemployed, trying to adjust after being released from jail, socially marginalized, suicidal, or some combination of these characteristics.

Only from a movie out England could a crew like this be part of a comedy, and a very funny one. These men don’t just come together to make money, though that is a need for all of them. Though they don’t realize this until the end, they come together to learn from each other what it means to be men. Whether because of the states of their marriages and families, their difficulties finding or keeping work, their sexual identity, or their self-esteem, each one of these men sees his manhood as in crisis. That’s what spawns their crazy scheme.

The movie never attempts to depict stripping as anything other than degrading, regardless of the gender doing it. Because the men find themselves seeking the desperate measures that many women before them have, they learn what it means to be judged by their physical characteristics, to experience body shamming as it’s now called, and how much more difficult it can be for women than for many men to learn to respect themselves.

A strange and beautiful thing about The Full Monty is that it’s a feminist movie with all male heroes. They’re heroes because they grow as people, they become men, and they learn to respect women out of the desperation they endure and the degradation they subject themselves to. But because they come together and reach this goal together, they are forced to give up self-centeredness and wrong ideas they had been clinging to about what it means to be a man. Their eventual victory over their difficult circumstance doesn’t happen because they’re chippendale dancers who go “the full monty” (complete nudity), but because they join together, they learn to put each other’s interests ahead of their own and to work together as a team. Their success happens because none of them does it for himself but for each other and for their families.

Having said that, The Full Monty is not only one of the funnies movies ever made but also one of the most inspiring. Dustin Hoffman said about his performance in Tootsie that it made him a better man because he learned what it meant to endure the many hardships that women do. All the actors in The Full Monty went through that same type of journey. It shows in the movie because the changes in the characters flow so naturally, because the laughs and the emotions are never forced but come as the result of bringing viewers in right in the middle of that journey. The Full Monty is a smart, joyous, delightful experience that encourages all of us to make sure our lives are filled with others who we empathize with, share life with, and grow with, others who make us better people.

List: The Movies of New Orleans

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As we’re taking a summer vacation through the movies Thursdays in July and August, this is our last week looking at U.S. cities in the movies. We’ve already been to New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. In August, we’ll go to five different European countries. Now, here are the best New Orleans movies. That doesn’t mean the best movies that happen to be set in New Orleans but the best portraits of the city that the movies have given us.

 

8. Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953)

Often disregarded as a worthless and unfunny movie, Abbott and Costello Goes to Mars may be far from a masterpiece but it does succeed at one thing. It shows just how unique a city New Orleans is. The characters end up in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, but they think they’re on Mars!

 

7. Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

Based on a play by Tennessee Williams, who loved to write about New Orleans, Suddenly Last Summer is set in the city’s Garden District. Though the movie doesn’t deeply explore the dark mystical practices known to be so common in New Orleans, the movie explores very deeply a family that has probably been influenced by those practices, with a very creepy woman in a very creepy home in what the movie makes to look like a very creepy Garden District.

 

6. The Princess and the Frog (2009)

The movie fails to bring the charm and joy of most Disney animated films, but there is one thing The Princess and the Frog does very well, and that’s portray the city. Randy Newman’s opening song “Down in New Orleans” shows us the French Quarter, the street musicians, the palm readers, and especially the restaurants since the story’s “princess” isn’t really a princess but a girl who dreams of owning a restaurant, and the animated food looks so real that it makes us as hungry for creole and fried food as Ratatouille does for all things of French cuisine.

 

5. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Another Tennessee Williams adaptation, this time adapted into a great film for Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, shows a very dark picture of New Orleans that reflects Blanche’s stereotypes more than the city in any time period. Yet her insane caricature of the city, of its people, of all people she thinks of as “common,” and especially her own family is all set in something that looks very much like the real New Orleans, no matter how unrealistic the story may deal with its culture.
4. Jezebel (1938)

The quintessential movie of the South before Gone with the Wind, Bette Davis plays a role very much like Scarlet O’Hara in a film that recreated the New Orleans of the Reconstruction period just like Gone with the Wind recreated the Atlanta of the same time.

 

3. All the King’s Men (1949)

A fictionalized version of the corrupt Louisiana senator Louis P. Long, Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) is definitely a product of his culture. We see the character formed by the good, the bad, and the ugly of his surroundings, including the city of New Orleans.

 

2. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

“The Bathtub” is a fictional bayou, but the filmmakers leave no room for doubt that it’s part of New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina. Like many bayou communities in New Orleans, the residents of the Bathtub are so cut off from the rest of the world that they don’t even have a name for the storm that’s coming (and I mean a name as basic as hurricane, not the specific name Katrina). Beasts takes us to the extremely self-sufficient, self-governing, self-enclosed bayou communities that really do exist around New Orleans.

 

 

1. Easy Rider (1969)

Billy and Wyatt travel through many parts of the U.S., but through their whole trip, they talk about their plans for Mardi Gras so vividly that we get a tour of New Orleans before the characters ever get there. When they do get there, we see a lot of the French Quarter and its most famous Beale Street, we see the festivities of Mardi Gras, and we even get a scene taking us through one the city’s above-ground cemeteries.