Rob Edelman: A Country’s Recent History

Oct 8, 2012

For decades, filmmakers from across the globe have been producing works that explore their country’s history, culture, and politics-- and that offer perspectives on that history. In this regard, two very different but not unrelated films were screened at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. One spotlights East Germany in the 1980s, before the fall of communism. The other is a portrait of France in the early 1970s, when a certain type of young person was embracing a Marxist/anarchist ideal.

The first is titled BARBARA, and it is a subtly powerful drama directed by Christian Petzold. The title character is a doctor who has just arrived in the provinces from East Berlin. Barbara is grim and unsmiling-- and no wonder. In her country, there is no such thing as civility and compassion. Citizens are little more than prisoners of the state. Even hospital patients are treated rudely and crudely. 

But Barbara’s behavior is not the result of her mindlessly embracing this lack of humanity. In fact, there is plenty of humanity within her. However, as depicted by Petzold, if you are a citizen of East Germany you are bound to be viewed with suspicion by the “authorities” if you are in any way compassionate-- even if you are a doctor tending to patients. 

So a person such as Barbara has to be on her guard. One of her colleagues at the hospital is friendly and sympathetic. But is he really? Can he be trusted? Can anyone be trusted? In BARBARA, East Germany is portrayed as a lifeless state, a culture that is as sick as any patient in the hospital, a society in which everyone is suspect. 

The second film is SOMETHING IN THE AIR, and its director is Olivier Assayas. SOMETHING IN THE AIR thoughtfully and potently charts the activities of a band of young people, students who are protesting the status quo. But they are not playfully mischievous high school or college kids. They are serious about revolution. They are young anarchists and ideologues who are determined to change the world.

The catch here is that they are not the products of poverty, the downtrodden outcasts of an unfair system. Collectively, they are the children of privilege. When not protesting, they are traveling in style with their families or working as production assistants on movie sets. The latter, of course, is a plum job that a young person might obtain only by a well-placed phone call from a well-connected relative. 

On one level, SOMETHING IN THE AIR is a snapshot of what it was like to be a teen or twentysomething at a certain moment in time. Everything is here, from young people spouting political ideology and embracing Eastern spirituality, living communally and luxuriating in free and easy sex. But the characters in SOMETHING IN THE AIR are purposefully unlikable, because they are so spoiled-- and so sure of themselves. 

And Assayas’ point of view is ever-so-clear. He is offering a portrait of young people who are experiencing adult freedoms and pleasures as they set off on voyages of self-discovery. Tellingly, the difference here is that there is as much self-destruction as there is self-discovery. 

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of  Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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