Saturday, 14 April 2012

The Edgar Reitz Collection: Lust For Love (1967) / The Tailor From Ulm (1979)

Heidi Stroh stars in Edgar Reitz's Lust For Love (1967)

On April 16th, Bluebell Films are releasing two formerly obscure titles from the acclaimed German filmmaker Edgar Reitz: Lust For Love (1967), the award-winning drama which launched him onto the international stage, and The Tailor From Ulm (1979), the last of Reitz's films to be distributed in the UK outside of his groundbreaking Heimat series (A Chronicle Of Germany, 1984; Chronicle Of A Generation, 1993; A Chronicle Of Endings And Beginnings, 2004; The Women, 2006). These releases are hopefully the first in a long line (it'd be great to see Reitz's early shorts get their own disc), but for now let's focus on this intriguing double-bill. Firstly, some context...

On February 28th, 1962, Reitz united with 26 fellow German directors to sign the Oberhausen Manifesto, a declaration of independence which outlined new conditions for filmmaking in the post-war country, underlining the necessity for freedom in creativity and unshackling artists from the bureaucratic, commercially-minded studio systems. "The old film is dead", it declared. "We believe in the new!" Reitz set out the following year, along with Oberhausen co-founder Alexander Kluge (Yesterday Girl, 1966), to create the Institut für Filmgestaltung, a school where young filmmakers could hone and experiment within their craft. Furthermore, the Oberhausen 26 devised an organization called the Kuratorium Junger Deutscher Film, wherein they'd be able to produce and distribute their own pictures freely. The Kuratorium was "explicitly charged with putting the proposals of the Oberhausen Manifesto into practice", and its first fruit was Reitz's breakthrough, Lust For Love...

It's surprising to learn that this film was charged with carrying the torch of New German cinema's singularity, as Lust For Love shares much DNA with the early work of nouvelle vague luminaries Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, particularly the formers À bout de souffle (1959). Reitz employs handheld cameras, jump cuts, elliptical voiceover (from an external narrator) and P.O.V. shots to navigate the seconds, weeks, months and years of Elisabeth (Heidi Stroh) and Rolf's (Georg Hauke) heady love affair. The film opens with a Ulysses quote; "Intense desire, questioning wife, destroys us all." From here their amour spins out at an extraordinary pace, composed almost like a photographic flick-book. Elisabeth is 20-years-old when we meet her, studying as a photography student, and taking snaps of Hamburg's dockyards when Rolf wanders into her frame. He's a medical student, particularly interested in anatomy. The scene for their romance is set in glorious black and white, courtesy of cinematographer Thomas Mauch (the genius DP behind Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath Of God, 1972, and Fitzcarraldo, 1982), whose compositions are undoubtedly the highlight of Lust For Love.

Reitz's emotional mapping is precise but complex, interweaving issues of class and faith into the decade-span of Elisabeth and Rolf's relationship (in this sense prefiguring the structure of Ingmar Bergman's masterful Scenes From A Marriage, 1973), but the camera's free-form, often erratic behavior alienates rather than engages. The story is split into three chapters - Rolf For His Life, Rolf For His Poor Life and Rolf Given Up - but no suggestion is made of how much time has actually passed between each stage. This temporal displacement can be effective on a scene-by-scene basis, like in the whirlwind montage of their first dates, but when considering the full stretch of the film - which also sees the couple married and having six kids - it becomes wearing, and I couldn't help but feel that integral details had been allowed to fall through the aesthetics cracks.

A rhythm begins to emerge at the film's midsection, when Reitz's dramatic focus shifts away from the marriage and towards Rolf's rise and fall in the medical industry. In these scenes especially Mauch's compositions seem to foreshadow the vérité experiments of Lars von Trier and his Dogme cohorts, with the use of diegetic sound and (seemingly) improvised camerawork putting me in mind of Breaking The Waves (1996) and Festen (1998). Indeed, Lust For Love's formal playfulness cold be compared with just about any cinematic movement of its bookending half-centuries, but so many elements of its story feel compromised for style. For example, while Rolf is away at work Elisabeth is visited by two American representatives of The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter Day Saints, and briefly toys with the idea of Mormonism. The characters really shine in these moments, and Reitz's focus settles during an impressive baptism scene where his camera trains itself around Rolf's damaged, reflective eyes. When the film finally gets around to confronting his depression the result is underwhelming, and Reitz's flick-book feels less Scenes From A Marriage and more A History Of The Cinema.

Jakob Degen (Harald Kuhlmann) takes flight in The Tailor From Ulm (1979)

The Tailor From Ulm feels refreshingly straightforward in comparison, spinning the (true) yarn of Bavarian tailor Albrecht Berblinger (Tilo Prückner), who began constructing a flying machine after saving the beautiful Irma (Marie Colbin) from a near-fatal balloon accident. This young woman is fiancée to Jakob Degen (Harald Kuhlmann), the inventor extraordinaire who helps Albrecht with his blueprints for the machine, taking as their leapfrog the wingspan of a great eagle. The chaps tinker away for years, eventually becoming separated by war, but our protagonist remains determined to take off into the skies...

Reitz flirts with some interesting ideas here, especially when Albrecht joins forces with the Jacobin revolutionary Kaspar Fesslen (Vadim Glowna) and opposes Napoleon's regime. These scenes don't add anything to the story, but they do successfully underline Albrecht's idealism and naivety, also witnessed in the film's closing dilemma when he is asked by the Magistrate to use his machine as a bridge over the Danube river. The tailor knows in his heart that this would unite the people, and cannot foresee the possibility of manipulation - that is, until Jakob returns to his side, having become destitute in Paris. Reitz (co-writing with Petra Kiener) becomes lost in politics during the film's midsection, but it's worth it for a truly breathtaking finale, where all of Albrecht's passion and frustration is channeled into a palm-sweating public exhibition.

Honestly, it's actually proving hard to review The Tailor Of Ulm, as it never struck me as much more than a well-crafted historical fantasy, albeit one grounded in a quite remarkable truth. I can't help but feel that Albrecht is the sort of mad genius better suited to the directorial hands of Werner Herzog, where he could sit alongside Brian Fitzgerald and Kaspar Hauser. There's an underlying craziness to the character which Reitz never explores, and as such the tale feels - and looks, through the eye of DP Dietrich Lohmann - rather flat. Prückner's embodiment of Albrecht is also a little one-note, as he never really communicates the character's undying obsession; his ambition to soar among eagles. After all, in the opening scene his eyes set not upon Irma, the maiden in distress (although the screenplay clearly establishes her as a love interest), but the balloon from which he saves her.

The film's highlight lies in watching Albrecht and Jakob's friendship emerge. Their mutual admiration and rivalry establishes a lifelong bond, with each celebrating the other's work but secretly praying for personal triumph. It is during their scenes that The Tailor From Ulm soars, but overall the film remains a little too grounded, a little too safe to really sustain its flight.

The Discs/Extras
Beautiful restorations for both films, although the vanilla discs - boasting not even an image gallery, trailer or cast biographies - are hard to recommend at full price. The Lust For Love DVD looks especially good, and both films have excellent subtitles courtesy of Kenneth Mills and John R. Middleton, but Bluebell have definitely missed a trick with the extras.

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