Modern German Tale of Crime and Punishment

Tom Tykwer’s Winter Sleepers , from a screenplay by Mr. Tykwer and Anne-Françoise Pyszora, based on the novel Expense of Spirit , by Ms. Pyszora, was made in 1997, just before Run Lola Run , and what the two films have in common is a furiously kinetic energy that reminds us of the roots of cinema in the contemplation of motion. Of course, the full flowering of cinema required the transformation of motion into emotion. And it is in this realm where the merely mobile becomes luminously lifelike, where characters and dramatic narrative intersect, that opinions may differ on the esthetic achievements of Run Lola Run and Winter Sleepers . That is to say, if you didn’t like Run Lola Run , you probably won’t like Winter Sleepers , and even if you did like Run Lola Run you may like Winter Sleepers less. As for the great mass of moviegoers who avoid foreign language films with subtitles like the plague, the only virtues I can recommend are the helicopter-borne moving-camera shots of the magnificently mountainous snowscapes of the Bavarian Alps in ghostly Berchtesgaden where once Hitler gazed malignantly at the rest of Europe from his aerie.

Oddly, the novel from which Winter Sleepers has been adapted was set in Southern France. Mr. Tykwer preferred the comparatively claustrophobic feeling of an Alpine villa for his four young protagonists over the sunny open-endedness of the novel’s milieu. The villa in question is owned by Laura (Marie-Lou Sellem), a nurse and amateur performer in a low-grade local theatrical troupe. Laura shares her inherited and thereby sumptuously overfurnished dwelling with Rebecca (Floriane Daniel), a translator of harlequin ski romances from abroad, and a receptionist at the ski lodge. As the film begins, Rebecca greets her lover Marco (Heino Ferch), who has come down from the lodge in his newly purchased car. While Rebecca and Marco are making love inside the villa, a mysterious stranger passes by and photographs them through a large window. Finding Marco’s car with the key still in the ignition, the stranger drives off on the icy mountain road. Up to this point, this interloper might be a mischievous poltergeist at best; at worst a dangerous criminal.

Meanwhile, a grizzled local farmer named Theo (Josef Bierbichler) sets out with his sick horse in a trailer hitched to his car and his young daughter secretly aboard for the trip to the veterinarian. The stage is now set for a fateful misadventure. In the near crash, the trailer turns over on the road with the barely conscious farmer trapped in his car while the stolen vehicle swerves off the road into the deep snow. Somehow the stranger extricates himself, looks in on the farmer but makes no attempt to help, and walks away in a daze. Six lives will eventually be directly affected by this accident, and two lives will be ended. Who, how and why constitute the ingredients of this suspensefully ironic fable.

When a passing motorist finally helps Theo crawl out of his car, still traumatized, he is further horrified to discover his daughter unconscious in the snow after being thrown from the trailer in the accident. After shooting his injured horse with a shot heard all the way into town, Theo begins babbling about a man with a scar driving on the wrong side of the road. Or so it seems to the skeptical authorities, who fail to notice the roof of a car almost completely covered by snow in the field far off the road. Here the first bitter irony emerges. The police know Theo is on the verge of bankruptcy, and is about to lose his farm. He has been behaving strangely in public, talking to himself, and, hence, no one believes his story about a scar-faced motorist. Though even his own wife doubts his story and is embarrassed by what people are saying about him, Theo becomes even more determined to bring the phantom driver to justice.

As it turns out, the object of Theo’s quest is revealed to us, but not to him, as the projectionist in the town’s one movie house, a solitary type named René (Ulrich Matthes), who suffers from short-term memory loss as a result of a grenade fragment lodged in his brain from an army accident. He carries a camera around with him to record the experiences he will be unable to remember. As we become more interested in this strangely handicapped character, his crime diminishes to what he intended to be a harmless piece of mischief, never anticipating its tragic consequences. Indeed, we are encouraged to undergo a short-term memory loss of our own in order to reappraise René as the whimsically articulate character he proves to be.

As René grows as a character, Marco, the lover, shrinks, gradually revealing himself to be a liar, a cheat, a sluggard, a betrayer and a self-pitying sexist. Rebecca is aware of some, though not all of his faults and shortcomings, but tolerates him only for the pleasure he gives her. René then completes the quadrille by meeting Laura after her comically inept performance as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire and immediately wooing her. For a time, the two couples find themselves together but apart, in the villa, with one relationship heating up as the other cools down.

It is as if Mr. Tykwer and his colleagues were burning the shells of their characters under the hot lenses of the camera to reveal the spiritual essence underneath. The two women are transformed less by the incidents of the plot than by their discovery of inner resources with which they can effect the necessary changes in their lives. Indeed, the very complexity of the narrative reminds us that there are always unseen, unheard and completely unknown forces affecting our lives, for better or worse. We are not completely helpless, but we are far from possessing the total mastery of our fate we sometimes assume in our very American optimism and exuberance, irrational or otherwise.

Once Theo’s child dies, his obsessive rage leads him to the scene of the accident where he discovers the phantom car, and is ironically led to the wrong conclusion. What happens next is far from being inevitable or preordained. It is not justice, poetic or otherwise. Actually, fate seems to be willfully blind, though entertainingly perverse in its daisy chain of intertwined relationships. In his 30’s, Mr. Tykwer treats young Germans here and in Run Lola Run as rebellious fugitives from a profound dysfunction, both familial and historical. These subtexts provide depth and feeling to characters who would otherwise be merely photogenic figures in an ever dynamic snowscape swirling in ever more intricate patterns. Mr. Tykwer added the character of Theo to the screenplay to serve as a moral counterweight to the youthful frivolity of the major characters.

Having seen only two out of the director’s four works (there’s a fifth on the way), I would consider it premature to speculate on where he will go from here. One clue is his reported German television tributes to Lars Von Trier, Wim Wenders and Peter Greenaway, three perpetually cutting-edge filmmakers. Yet Mr. Tykwer’s own films are mercifully free of the more annoying mannerisms of the cinematic absurdists. He never winks at the audience to assure them he is not taking his bold narratives too seriously. Nor does he punish us for our bourgeois sins of commission and omission by making his movies painful and disgusting to watch.

His exhilarating expressionism extends to all aspects of his images, and particularly to his character-coordinated colors in the costume design of Aphrodite Kondos, the aforementioned scenic cinematography of Frank Griebe and the inventive production design of Alexander Manasse. As for the acting, I have never been able to decide whether the Germans or the Irish are the world’s best screen actors. It is the roaring Wagnerian thunder versus the lilting blarney and gift of gab. If the Germans have an edge at all, it is in their sublime gravitas from the days of Murnau, Lang and Pabst all the way to Fassbinder and, now, Tykwer.

Here, in Winter Sleepers , all the performers are unfamiliar to me, which helps with the illusion, of course. Still, they are marvelously well cast as well, particularly in terms of painterly contrasts with Ms. Daniel, the dynamite blonde, as Rebecca, and Ms. Sellem, the more somber brunette, as Laura. Sink or swim with general audience expectations, the frequently troubling and superficially cold Winter Sleepers is a finely wrought work of art worthy of every serious moviegoer’s attention.

The Gentle Giants Who Hurl Chairs at Each Other

Barry W. Blaustein’s Beyond the Mat has reportedly incurred the displeasure of the powers that be at the World Wrestling Federation, an organization that has cashed in on the surprising and ominous resurgence of pro wrestling as a popular spectacle with ever more violent and geekish variations. Mr. Blaustein claims he has loved the “sport” since early childhood, and still does.

From the evidence of this ambitious and inescapably ambivalent contemplation of the grunt and gougers both on and away from the mat, one may say of Mr. Blaustein’s professed love of this popular phenomenon that maybe he does and maybe he doesn’t. Without commenting on the ghoulishness of the spectacle and the decline-and-fall-of-the-American-Empire frenzies of its fans, he lets his camera tell a story of increasing savagery in the ring since the early 50’s when Gorgeous George and Antonino Rocca ruled the roost. I don’t remember people throwing metal chairs at each other, and taking death-defying falls as if they were Hollywood stunt men. Certainly, if any animal were subjected to so much pain and suffering, the public outcries would put the promoters out of business if not in jail. Of course, the same thing can be said of boxing, and one must weigh the rights of gladiators to earn a higher standard of living than would otherwise be possible.

The gentle giants here are movingly tender with their little children, particularly with their daughters. Yes, they are human and brave and not a little foolish, but what a way to earn a living.