I once estimated that something like 75% of the films that I owned were in a foreign language, with subtitles. I just seemed to prefer them, for various reasons. Often, it is the fact that the cast is unfamiliar, so you come to the film without any preconceptions, or prejudice toward one of the actors. Sometimes, it is because the subject matter is appealingly different, or the fact that they look at familiar events from a different side to the one we are used to. Mostly, it is just that they are better films; less formulaic, and fresher to watch and enjoy.
Looking through my collection for this series, I have had to revise this estimate. It would seem that over recent years, I have been getting more films in English, and less of those classified as World Cinema. I decided to delve to the back of a shelf for today’s post, and found that many of the foreign gems were lurking there. Here are some of them for you to consider. Unless stated otherwise, they are all in the original language, with English subtitles.
Black Sun (1995)
I will be the first to admit that not every film I own is worthy of recommendation. Like anyone else, I occasionally make mistakes of judgement, and have sometimes purchased films that are uninteresting, or just plain bad. This film appealed to me, as it was about a real event, the Nanking Massacre, that occurred during the Japanese invasion of China, in 1937. The DVD came with warnings about uncut content, graphic violence, and a disclaimer, ‘For mature viewers only.’ It was also released on the ‘Tartan Grindhouse’ label, so I was forewarned. They were all necessary warnings, as this is an exploitative and visceral film that in some parts, is very hard to watch. Atrocities are shown in graphic detail, and disembowelling, beheading, and sexual assaults on females are portrayed unflinchingly.
I cannot even cite historical accuracy as a reason to watch this, as many of the events are jumbled or compressed, and character studies scant or absent. To be fair to the film, and the film-maker, T.F. Mou, it does what it says on the tin. Whether or not you want to watch the results, I leave up to you.
The Story Of The Weeping Camel (2004)
This is pretty much the opposite of the film above. Carrying a ‘U’ certificate, and watchable by anyone of any age, this enchanting documentary film will pluck at the strings of the hardest heart. The setting is the harsh Gobi Desert, in the south of Mongolia, and a family of nomadic herders raise their animals in the same way that they have done for thousands of years. As spring arrives, the camels are about to give birth to their young, attended to and assisted by the herders and their families. One camel gives birth to a very rare white baby. The mother rejects the infant camel, refusing to feed it, and ignoring its pleas for attention.
To try to help the situation, the herders turn to their ancient rites and beliefs. They ask for the help of Tibetan priests, and they perform a ritual, in a place sacred to those people. Despite raising a prayer flag, playing bells, and delivering incantations, the ritual fails, and the mother camel still refuses to acknowledge her baby. Two young boys from the family are sent on the long trip to the local market, to enlist the services of a musician who can play a traditional instrument, similar to a violin. He returns with the boys, and sets up a musical rite, involving him playing the stringed instrument, as the herders’ families chant soothing and calming sounds.
The mother camel begins to weep. Large tears roll down her cheeks, and she allows the white baby camel to take milk, forming the much needed bond. By this time, I was crying too. Magical, in every sense.
The Counterfeiters (2007)
This is an Austro-German film, based on real events in a concentration camp during the Second World War, and it won the Oscar in 2007, for best foreign language film. This unusual film is nothing like the conventional treatments of life in the terrible concentration camps. It is no ‘Schindler’s List’, or ‘The Grey Zone.’ Dealing with the memoirs of an actual forger who was imprisoned in both Mauthausen and Sachsenhausen camps, it looks at another side of these evil institutions, the German efforts to undermine the economy of the allies. They try to do this by forging huge amounts of US dollars and British pounds, which will be used to flood those countries with the useless currency, and affect their financial stability.
They search the various camps for the best printers, artists, and known forgers, placing them all together in a special section of the camp at Sachsenhausen. They are given better food and living conditions than the other prisoners, but still treated harshly, and made aware that death could be an option at any given moment. Most of the team involved in the forging are unhappy about their role, and feel bad about being treated differently to the other inmates. They occasionally try to sabotage the counterfeit money, and seek information about the progress of the war outside. One of the forgers, Sorowitsch, takes a pride in his work. A successful forger and accomplished artist before the war, he continues to strive for excellence, unconcerned that his skill is helping the German war effort. This brings him into conflict with some of his fellow forgers, and over time, he begins to regret his actions.
This is a rewarding and very different film, about a difficult subject. Action shifts from after the war, to before it began, ending with a snapshot of the life of Sorowitsch not long after the camp is liberated. It is about suffering, endurance, survival, and ultimate redemption.
Monsieur Hire (1989)
This French film from Patrice Leconte, is about obsession. loneliness, and desire. Based on a story by Georges Simenon, it is a remake of the 1947 original, with a change of title. Like many similar films from France, it concentrates on the small things; the looks, the gazes, the details. But it is nonetheless an accomplished psychological thriller, and one that keeps you interested to the end. Monsieur Hire is the local tailor. He keeps himself to himself, avoiding the company of others, preferring to spy on them instead from the window of his apartment. He knows his limitations; bald, ordinary looking, and with little interest in the outside world, he is unlikely to attract a female companion. He is particularly interested in his young and attractive neighbour, Alice, and spends his nights watching her, and her activities with her boyfriend, Emile.
Hire is disliked by most of those around him, and when a local girl is found dead, he becomes the chief suspect for the murder, despite there being no evidence against him. The investigating detective becomes convinced that Hire is his man, and begins to hound the reclusive tailor. Because of all the attention the murder receives, Alice notices the man watching her. Rather than tell the police, she goes to Hire’s flat, and confronts him. He confesses all to her, his love and desire, and how he cannot stop watching her. He then tells her that he had seen Emile kill the local girl, and suggests that she should abandon her boyfriend, and run away with him instead.
This is the kind of film that the French do so well. A great pair of leading actors in Michel Blanc and Sandrine Bonnaire, a small but accomplished supporting cast, and little flash or excess fat on either script, or direction. I enjoyed this and many like it years ago, and look forward to watching them all again, one of these days.
A Short Film About Love (1988)
This Polish film from director Krzysztof Kieślowski is an expanded episode from his ‘Dekalog’ series of films, which also include the marvellous ‘A Short Film About Killing.’ I recalled that I had written a short review of this some time ago, so I will save the typing, and re-print that instead.
‘Starting in 1988, he made a series of short films, each one a modern take on one of the Ten Commandments, and they were collectively called ‘Dekalog’. He later expanded two of the stories, though still only allowing a short running time, in this case, less than 90 minutes. Here, we have a film about obsessive desire, as a young man spies on his attractive neighbour (the wonderful Grazyna Szapolowska) as she comes and goes, and meets lovers in her apartment. Without adding a spoiler, the two eventually meet, and events unfold that turn everything around. A small film perhaps, but a small masterpiece.’
If you are unfamiliar with his work, I can highly recommend this film as an introduction to it.
The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)
This Oscar-nominated German film covers the first ten years of events surrounding the German revolutionary group, the Red Army Faction. You don’t need to have any knowledge about this group, or indeed any interest in their activities, to enjoy this episodic thriller. They begin with revolutionary ideals, going on to bank robberies to fund their activities, and eventually becoming involved in a high-profile embassy siege.
The convoluted relationships within the large group are dealt with in detail, and the pressures and strains that cause break-ups and splits are well covered too. There are some impressive set-pieces, realistic shoot-outs, and many of the political problems surrounding West Germany at the time are also explained. The activities of this group almost brought down the government of the day, and the authorities resolved to hunt them down.
This is an interesting look at a time of turbulence in European politics. It is never less than convincing, and the acting from all concerned is at a high level. The changing fashions, cars, and lifestyles over the ten years are also authentically handled.
Six more films to think about. I hope that you are inspired to watch some of them, but if you decide to see ‘Black Sun’, don’t say I didn’t warn you!