Die Mitte (The Centre, 2003);
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

FILM, Film Society

This week at the Wellington Film Society: The heart of Europe; Lubitsch’s touch.

The centre of a place implies some sort of fixity; an almost rigid and permanent point that ought to be easily discernible and unchanging. The charming German documentary Die Mitte sets off in search of what should be simple to find: the centre of Europe. After all, the northern-most, the western-most, the southern-most, and even the eastern-most points appear easy enough to locate. (In reality, the various islands and continent blending make that difficult, technically speaking.) However, the documentary shows just how fraught the concept of “the centre” is. Through the process of looking for it, director Stanislaw Mucha captures a complex tapestry of history, competing cultures, regional versus national versus transnational outlooks, and other challenges, all of which he concludes is metaphorically at the heart of Europe.

Mucha begins his quest for the centre of Europe in Germany, and finds other places claiming to be the centre. Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine all have some sort of memorial to their central status. The towns have varied histories, but histories that contain some of the key aspects of European history: Napoleon Bonaparte’s wedding place, Hitler’s birth-place, Cold War politics, anti-Semitism, and the EU are firmly part of the various towns. The inhabitants documented are charming, witty, sad, lonely, or disillusioned—often all at once.

The film’s appeal lies initially in the mordant humour, as Mucha’s eye draws out some odd yet compelling images and characters. Mucha keeps the metaphors subtle, but powerful. The film loses a bit of steam in the second half. (The Ukraine segment, in particular, was a little too meandering, and the Lithuanian segment was especially dark.) Despite this though, the film succeeds due to Mucha’s engaging characters and his anthropological fascination as a filmmaker. Ultimately, Die Mitte itself lacks a centre—a meandering, eclectic portrayal of a meandering, eclectic continent.

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Ernst Lubitsch is famous for his legendary “touch”—the notion that he could confront potentially adult or weighty issues with the lightest of touches. Innuendos that should have raised the ire of zealous Hollywood censors pass by almost unnoticed (except for drawing out laughter); darker themes are concealed by the comedy, and so on. And while Lubitsch’s light touch is perhaps a little overstated in his overall reputation, his 1940 classic The Shop Around the Corner showcases some of Lubitsch’s talents perfectly. The film opens a mini-season at the Wellington Film Society focusing on Lubitsch’s earlier, rarer work (thanks again to the Goethe Institut), and offers a nice way ‘in’ for newcomers to Lubitsch’s world.

The Shop Around the Corner stars one of Hollywood’s most likeable on-screen couples: James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan (in fact Sullavan is credited as the person who convinced the studios to give Stewart his break). The two play bickering workmates who can’t stand each other, but privately they’re writing each love letters without realising who the other is. (The film was later re-made as the thoroughly awful You Got Mail starring the ‘80s/‘90s couple version of Stewart and Sullavan, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.)

Beyond the romantic comedy tropes lies a darker and more complex story. It’s Depression-era Hungary, in which the characters work in a struggling department store. The supporting characters all have their various struggles, and while some of the characters and situations are, in hindsight, a little creaky, the film looks at people in an oasis in the middle of gloom, knowing full well there’s a scary and struggling world outside the shopfront window. Lubitsch concludes that it’s the people and the relationships that matter (not the jobs, the money, nor the social status, though the ending suggests both are nice). Also, relationships are portrayed as fragile, fateful things that almost don’t quite mutually coincide (one can almost sense the great French director Jacques Demy being influenced by Lubitsch’s approach of lovers never quite meeting).

The script is a talky one (it’s based on a stageplay). This results in a reasonably static visual piece. It’s the dialogue, however, that really drives the film. Stewart’s brilliant comic timing, Sullavan’s dynamic presence, and their snappy attacks on each other are a pleasure to watch. It’s a romantic comedy at its purest—likeable leads, real chemistry, and an energy to it that, much like love, is elusively hard to pinpoint.

Film Societies in twelve centres run an annual programme of weekly/bi-monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Further details are available online at filmsociety.wellington.net.nz. For information about a film society closest to you, visit the New Zealand Federation of Film Societies.