Spring Break

The water fountain is splashing in front of the Detroit Institute of Arts, the trees have blossomed at the main branch of the Detroit Public Library, and once again, spring has come to the Detroit Cultural Center.

On this sunny, pleasant mid-spring day (April 27, 2008), I attended the last day of the Detroit Film Theatre’s Winter/Spring season, which started in mid-January.  I took in an afternoon double feature of the 1974 German film The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser (1 p.m.), and a new movie about the Israeli army’s withdrawal in 2000 from a fort in Lebanon, Beaufort (4 p.m.).

Werner Herzog

The German film was one of two movies that the DFT presented this weekend from the famous director Werner Herzog.  On Thursday, April 24, I saw Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1973), a relentlessly grim tale about a power-mad Spanish explorer in 16th century South America.  The dramatic and dangerous settings for this movie made me wonder about the actual effect of the filming on the actors.

In Aguirre, Klaus Kinski gave a memorably chilling performance as the lead character Aguirre, and the DFT’s big screen helped show all the details of his cold, obsessed facial expressions.  The DFT’s sharp sound system helped put us in the middle of claustrophobic jungle and river explorations.  I was grateful to the DFT for finally being able to see this remarkable movie in a theater.  I had this same feeling a few days earlier when I saw another world cinema classic at the DFT, the 1961 French film Last Year at Marienbad.

The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, also known as Every Man for Himself (and God Against All) presented another fascinating lead character with an extreme personality.  Kaspar Hauser was a real person who grew up in isolation before an attempt to mainstream him into society.  The mixed blessings of his new life made for a poignant, sad movie that left you with a deep sympathy for the unique, difficult journey of Kaspar Hauser, and the frustrations of those who tried to help him.

Watching these two Herzog movies reminded me of his role in the new German cinema that emerged in the 1970s.  Other German directors who were part of this creative wave were Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlondorff, Margarethe von Trotta, and Wim Wenders.  The emergence of these directors seemed to signal a new stage in the cultural life of Germany, as it attempted to move further away from the historical burdens of Nazi Germany.

The German film industry again seems to be on the rise, with the last two Academy Awards for Foreign Language films going to German language movies—The Lives of Others (2006), and The Counterfeiters (2007), which appeared at the DFT in March.  The DFT’s summer 2008 movie series will include Werner Herzog’s latest film, Encounters at the End of the World, a documentary about the South Pole.

(In between the two Herzog films, I saw several short Three Stooges comedies at the Redford Theatre on April 26.  Talk about different kinds of surreal cinema…)


The second half of my DFT double bill was Beaufort, a tense, detailed fictional account of the Israeli military’s last days in a southern Lebanon fort that it had occupied for 18 years, after being the most recent of many armies to take it over in 1982.  It was an excellent mixture of dramatic, commercial moviemaking and intimate, insightful art film.

At the very end of Beaufort, after the army had successfully retreated back home to Israel, the leader of the troops slowly stripped off the military gear that had helped form the only image that the audience so far had of him.  Suddenly, you saw an ordinary person who was releasing the tensions of the extraordinary challenges that he had just faced.

This movie strongly portrayed the immediate, personal effects of the military battles that have been waged between forces in Israel and Lebanon.  As I watched the Israeli soldiers battle to avoid incoming mortar fire, I thought about the speculation that much of the aggression towards Israel from Lebanon has come from weapons and troops that have been provided to the terrorist group Hezbollah from Syria and Iran.

Beaufort also touched upon the mixed feelings that many Israeli citizens might feel about the actions of its military. Early in the film, a sympathetically drawn soldier is shockingly killed, and his father later appears in a television interview, where he tries to take on the full responsibility for his son’s death.

Another Fine Season

After watching Beaufort, I stopped in the Crystal Gallery Cafe for some vegetarian chili, a diet Coke, and a closing day treat of some delicious dark chocolate.  I flipped through the pages of the Winter/Spring 2008 DFT schedule, taking in the full, combined effect of the many memorable impressions of this season.

The breathtaking ski photography of Steep…the humor and tragedy and new awarenesses of Persepolis…Harold Lloyd’s cute little dance in The Freshman…the sobbing tears of survivors of the Japanese invasion of China in 1937-38 in Nanking…the triumph of the concentration camp survivors in Steal a Pencil for Me…the glamorous abstractions of Last Year at Marienbad…the empathetic, real-time beauty of Flight of the Red Balloon.

And, most special, the tender poignancy of Charlie Chaplin’s face at the end of City Lights, when the formerly blind girl realizes that it was he who helped her regain her sight.

So now the DFT takes a break until early June, when it begins its summer season, which will include an animation festival, Canadian director Guy Maddin’s latest film, My Winnipeg; Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963); and Marcello Mastroianni in Divorce – Italian Style (1961).

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Copyright © 2008 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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