Friday Flicks: German Drama, American Silliness

Written by M.V. Moorhead Category: Visual Arts Issue: February 2019
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Two new films explore horror in very different ways.

never look away

Never Look Away—Nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, this three-hour epic from Germany isn't always easy to watch. In general, it's about, as one of the characters puts it, "consistent German madness" from the 1940s through the 1960s. More specifically, it's about the artistic maturation of Kurt (Tom Schilling as an adult), a young painter from Dresden (loosely based on Gerhard Richter), who, as a child, sees his beautiful, kind, mentally ill young Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) dragged off by the Nazis. She's sterilized and eventually murdered as part of the Reich's efforts to cleanse the Aryan race of mental deficiency.

Kurt grows up to become, in the '50s, an accomplished painter of the dreary "Socialist Realism" school, and later, in the West, to explore equally irksome modern art gimmicks in Dusseldorf in the '60s. Along the way, he meets a beautiful fashion student, a ringer for his late Aunt who shares her name, Elisabeth (Paula Beer), and the two fall passionately in love.

The narrative has another strand, tracing the career of a Nazi bigwig: the vain, officious Professor (the superb, chillingly believable Sebastian Koch) in charge of the sterilization/termination program at a Dresden hospital. As the story progresses, we gradually realize this guy's continuing relevance to our hero and heroine.

I would not have guessed that this movie was the work of writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the impressively-named fellow who made an unimpressive American debut with his weak 2010 Hitchcock knockoff The Tourist. By contrast, Never Look Away (titled Werk ohne Autor, or "Work Without Author" in German) is gutsy and absorbing, with one sturm und drang flourish after another, bombing raids and emergency childbirths and torrid love scenes and familial treachery and anxious escapes and artistic frustration and artistic inspiration, all beautifully shot by the great American cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (he's also Oscar-nominated for this film).

Most of the graphic horrors and atrocities are over after the first hour, but the film remains tense, even grueling, because of the emotional and moral aftershocks, and the implication that the evils of the Nazi era can never be completely banished. But this view is balanced by an unapologetic endorsement of love and decency and the power of art, which keeps Never Look Away from feeling oppressive.

The movie starts with Aunt Elisabeth taking little Kurt to a gallery show of allegedly "Degenerate Art," and whispering to him that she likes it; later she becomes ecstatic over a chorus of bus horns. I was soon bracing myself for another spin on the offensive cliché that mental illness confers artistic genius. That's not where themovie's heading, as it turns out, but Aunt Elisabeth does gives Kurt a rule to live by: "Never look away" she tells him, at two key moments. Throughout the story, people keep trying to cover Kurt's eyes, or his mouth; nonetheless he takes the advice to heart. So does the movie.

At Harkins Camelview.

Happy Death Day 2U—In 2017's Happy Death Day, our unlikable sorority-girl heroine Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) gets murdered by somebody wearing a hoodie and a smiling one-toothed baby mask. Then she wakes up at the MV5BMTg0NzkwMzQyMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDcxMTMyNzM. V1 beginning of the same day—her birthday—and it all starts over again. As she gets repeatedly re-murdered, and keeps getting do-overs, she starts unraveling the mystery, and also growing as a person.

This brazen, albeit avowed, application of the Groundhog Day premise to the slasher genre was an unexpected gem. The no-name cast was energetic, Scott Lobdell's script was ingenious, and there was plenty of humor along with the chills.

Now we get this sequel, scripted by director Christopher Landon, which starts by following around one of the minor characters from part one, the intruding roommate Ryan (Phi Vu). But it soon reboots the repeating day in which Tree was trapped, with a few key changes, and sends her scrambling around frantically again; the influences this time are (again avowedly) Back to the Future 2 and the "Multi-Verse" concept.

Inevitably, this is a sloppier, less disciplined, less elegantly structured piece of work than the original, and the addition of a sci-fi element to explain the phenomenon seems reductive somehow. It's also much more broadly played, to the point of farce, and consequently less creepy than its predecessor (both are rated PG-13).

Having said that, HDD2U is unbridled silly fun, and ridiculously more touching than it has any right to be, and in both cases this has a lot to do with Jessica Rothe as our heroine. Stalking around campus with her head slung forward and a drop-jawed, you've-got-to-be-kidding-me expression, she's a hoot, yet when she gets a chance at a heartfelt or romantic moment she's up to it. Actresses are rarely able to make hapless slasher-movie heroines into memorable characters; Jamie Leigh Curtis managed it with Laurie Strode in the Halloween pictures, and now, in a very different way, Rothe has done it with Tree Gelbman.

In wide release.