Girish Shambu checked in from Buffalo to see the international premiere of the German return-to-nature-film Die Räuberin.
Why do we travel? Specifically, what are some reasons why characters travel in cinematic narratives? One answer can be found in a film like Manoel de Oliveira’s Voyage to the Beginning of the World (1997), in which an aging film director, based on Oliveira himself and played by the ailing Marcello Mastroianni, takes a road trip and returns to places and people of the past, revisiting the sites of lost childhood, youthful romance and family breakups. (Oliveira was 89 when he made the film; Mastroianni died soon after.) The film seems to tell us: It’s never too late to reawaken a memory, or to be struck by a flash of wisdom. In Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool (2008), Farrel, the sailor on shore leave, makes a similar journey into the past, even if Alonso’s cinema — spare on dialogue or narrative backstory — is often the opposite of Oliveira’s.
A different reason for travel is escape — from a past and into the romantic promise of a kinder, more open and forgiving future where we can begin afresh. I’m reminded of Agnès Varda’s Kung Fu Master (1987), in which a 40-year-old woman (Jane Birkin) becomes romantically — and scandalously — involved with a boy in his mid-teens (played by Varda’s son Mathieu Demy). Their flight into nature is a way of carving out a pocket of ‘pure’ space and time for themselves, away from civilization. As we might expect, this fantasy of purity is doomed to be short-lived.
Kung Fu Master would make a provocative double bill with German filmmaker Markus Busch’s Die Räuberin (Rough), which is showing in the Bright Future program at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) this year. Busch is a writer-director known most recently for co-writing, with Dominik Graf, the film Don’t Follow me Around, that is part of the three-film work Dreileben (2011). The film opens with the protagonist Tania, a 40-year-old woman who is a successful sculptor, escaping her life in the city, and fleeing into the country. She moves into a rented house in a small seaside village, and lives a life of seclusion until she meets Thore, a boy in his mid-teens. She draws him into a friendship and then a romantic relationship, while looking to inaugurate a new life that is marked by compassion and innocence.
The film bears an interesting relationship to other contemporary German cinema, especially that of the ‘Berlin School’. Films like Christoph Hochhäusler’s The City Below (2010) or Christian Petzold’s Jerichow (2008) not only acknowledge their late-capitalist context explicitly, they are actively interested in detailing its mechanisms and machinery. These are films that are self-aware about being set in a particular place at a particular time.
To take a similar example from the other side of the world, scholar Zhang Xudong, in a recent piece in New Left Review about the films of Jia Zhangke, points out the socioeconomic and geographic specificity of Jia’s films: They are not a generalized representation of China but the portrayal of a very specific and under-represented slice of China — that of xiancheng, or the county-level city that is also a sort of shadow zone, an in-between space that belongs to neither metropolitan China nor rural China.
Jia’s dense and textured representation of a certain China lies at one end of the spectrum. In Die Räuberin, Busch, in a risky gamble, chooses the opposite end of the spectrum: instead of fleshing out his German small town with social, economic and cultural detail, he renders it in stark, abstract, elemental and ultimately unknowable terms.
This approach is not limited to his content; it also extends to his mise-en-scène, which is gray, still, and eerie. In this ghost town, even the commercial establishments like the local bar or the grocery store are sparsely peopled by dour, suspicious xenophobes and misogynists who remain un-individuated. The result is a free-floating menace that hangs in the air, held aloft in the frame by a quiet and repetitive piano-based soundtrack. What the film loses in sociological detail, it tries to make up for in mood and atmosphere.
Returning once more to the motif of travel, Die Räuberin feels sharpest when it is delineating the contrast between two states: on the one hand, the romance of flight from the corrupt, decadent city to the ‘pure’ and ‘innocent’ country; and on the other, the cold, hard indifference and hermeticism of the object that Tania, its artist-protagonist, dares to risk romanticizing — rural Germany.
Die Räuberin (Markus Busch, Germany 2011, 92′)