Further dispatches from the Goethe-Institut’s annual celebration of contemporary German cinema.
What makes a subject documentary-worthy? It’s a question I asked myself as the closing credits for Amma & Appa rolled. Directors Franziska Schönenberger and Jayakrishnan “Jay” Subramanian put their own lives in front of the camera, using their relationship and their respective parents as subjects. Franziska’s parents, Mama and Papa, are based in Bavaria, Germany; Jay’s parents, Amma and Appa, in Caddalore, India. The cultural differences between these two places is the centrepiece of the film, though the majority of the film takes place in Caddalore.
The point of conflict established in Amma & Appa is Jay’s prospective “love marriage” with Franziska as being something that Amma and Appa don’t approve of. Though it’s true that his parents aren’t pleased that he has fallen in love whilst studying abroad, especially to someone not of their caste, they come around quickly and never treat Franziska poorly. For them, their main concern is the loss of family values and the end of tradition. Both set of parents also have their own presumptions about each other’s cultures, resulting in some amusing behaviour: Mama and Papa pack an excessive amount of medicine for nausea and diarrhea before they go to India; Amma and Appa buy a dining table because they don’t think their German guests will be capable of eating cross-legged on the floor. Never are the parents mean-spirited or rude to one another though. In fact, once they get together, they are extremely friendly and accommodating. It doesn’t make for the most dramatic viewing, but the heartfelt interactions between the parents imbue the film with a genuine warmth.
Minus Park’s camerawork is conventional, utilising fly-on-the-wall observations and interviews as you’d expect, but he successfully captures the day-to-day details of the lives of Amma and Appa and the texture of Caddalore, elevating the setting’s importance to that of a character. The film is also interspersed with some playful animated sequences and 8mm footage, elevating it beyond a simple film school aesthetic.
The golden moment of the documentary occurs late in story. The four parents are sitting around talking. Amma and Appa want to explain to Mama and Papa why this whole prospective marriage isn’t easy for them. There is no doubt that when Franziska and Jay get married they will live in Germany. Yes, Jay might come once a year to visit his parents, but whereas Mama and Papa will keep a daughter and gain a son, Amma and Appa will lose a son. It’s an understated scene full of honest melancholy. There is no shouting match or hot-headed argument. Mama and Papa completely understand why this is so hard for Amma and Appa. There is no solution to this unsolvable predicament. Only disappointment to be bottled up.
Making your own families the subject of a documentary is no easy matter. To Franziska and Jay’s credit, they portray their parents respectfully, but there is an undeniable restraint in how they examine and explore them as subjects. I couldn’t shake the feeling that both of them were afraid to delve into their own thoughts and opinions on the matter. And despite the premise of the documentary being based on their romance, we are never given much time to see them as a couple either. This personal, intimate portrait of them and their families, then, becomes paradoxically distancing at times.
Even though the film suffers from a lack of narrative purpose, it is an enjoyable examination of a culture clash. Though it would be more accurate to call what happens in the film a culture nudge, making for a pleasant rather than powerful viewing experience. But, for all my reservations, I believe there is a lot of beauty to be found in the everyday details of the film. Amma & Appa isn’t a documentary subject that begs to be filmed, but we should be grateful such a personal story was shared with us anyway. It’s a great reminder that cinema can be about the little things.
Welcome to Germany through a glass darkly in Frauke Finsterwalder’s audacious feature-length debut. That the film is titled Finsterworld should be immediately telling. This is not the world as we know it. This is the director’s vision of the way things are, where weird is the new normal. Composed of five individual storylines with a large ensemble cast, Finsterwalder and co-writer Christian Kracht deftly handle the way they all cross paths. The result is a cleverly constructed toy where character connections only serve to emphasise just how isolated they all really are. It’s telling that pre-existing connections, predominately familial, tend to fail, and the new connections, between strangers or acquaintances, hold more promise. Tradition and history is fraught with tension, it seems.
Resisting easy categorisation, like the best films with a dark edge, Finsterworld is often very funny, unafraid of jarring the audiences with inappropriate tonal shifts. But, for all its highly stylised antics, Fintserworld is grounded in uncomfortable familiarity. It might be a world overpopulated with characters painted in broad strokes, but they are embodied earnestly by the entire cast. Yes, the cop (Ronald Zehrfeld) who’s a closet furry is easy to laugh at, but the disconnect between him and his girlfriend (Sandra Hüller) is played sincerely, and the distance between them seems heartbreakingly insurmountable. Also notable is Margit Carstensen, best known for her work with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, as a lonely grandmother desperate for human contact, exuding a porcelain doll-like fragility, and her pedicurist, played by Michael Maertens, who is the welcome source of uncomfortable laughs.
It’s a film filled with self-loathing, obsessed with the ugliness of Germany. What could be the film’s most essential scene takes place in the car as two adults and a child discuss the theory that modern day Germany is ugly because it feels too guilty to take pride in its looks after the events of World War II. Even the flag is ugly, the characters agree together. Combine this with the fact that the film’s most horrific scene takes place at the remains of a concentration camp and you’ve got an idea of how haunted by history Finsterworld is. The oversaturated, idyllic colors, captured by Cinematographer Markus Förderer, are also perfectly designed to clash with the grisly content, making for a surreal viewing experience. And it’s no coincidence that the film is peppered with references to Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse, Michael Haneke and Soffia Coppola. All these works share a common interest in urban alienation, ennui, and existential angst. They are also reminders that these are universally acknowledged feelings. Finsterworld might be set in Germany, but it is a reflection of the world we are all living in.
Terror and unmotivated cruelty pervade the closing moments of the film, Some of the shocks implemented in the film will undoubtedly feel gratuitous and borderline exploitative to some, but they are well-executed with definite purpose. Finsterworld, like our world, has no easy answers for life’s endless cruelties. That the final scene ends on an uplifting note, with a character exploring new sights and landscapes, is a brave choice. It’s one thing to take the audience on a journey through the lonely depths of modern society and end on a downbeat note, but its another thing entirely to show them the possibility of hope at the end. Maybe the world isn’t such a cold, dead place after all.