Sunday, 19 October 2014

Quellen des Lebens (4 Stars)

Let me start by telling you a bit about myself. I'm a big fan of German cinema, especially films made since 1990. In my opinion Germany makes better films than any other country except for America. And even then I would only conditionally put German films in second place. The best films are made in America, because there are incredible directors like David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino, but there are also a lot of bad films. In contrast, very few bad films are made in Germany, probably due to better quality control filtering out the turkeys before the first frame is shot. This means that even though the best films are American, the average quality of German films is higher.

Living in England I'm at a disadvantage. Very few German films are shown in English cinemas. DVD Rental services don't offer German films. Since I disagree with film piracy, the only way I can see them is by buying them. About twice a year I browse through the reviews on Amazon Germany looking for recommendations. I make a list of the films I want. Then I check Amazon's prices. If they are cheap enough (under 8 Euros) and there are at least five films I want (to save on postage) I make an order.

This is how I came to buy "Quellen des Lebens" (engl. "Sources of Life"), despite knowing very little about it. The first thing I did was read the text on the box, and I noticed was that it was a long film, almost three hours. After watching the first half hour the episodic nature made me wonder if it was a true story, so I paused the film and looked for film reviews online. Yes, it's not mentioned on the box, but this is an autobiographical film about the life of the film's director, Oskar Roehler. I wish I'd known that before I'd started watching, but now that I knew it I continued.

The film tells the story of Oskar's first 18 years, from 1959 to 1977. Actually, the story starts 10 years before his birth, when his grandfather returns from captivity in Russia. I'm always fascinated when someone tells his life story, because I'm currently working on my own life story, and I think that it's something that everyone should do. A friend recently told me that he wouldn't write about his own life because he thinks that it's something only celebrities should do. I disagree. I believe that everyone should leave something behind when he dies, a footprint in the sand, as I like to call it. In our information age it's possible. Maybe my friend isn't and never will be a celebrity, but that doesn't mean that nobody will read his book. One day his great-grandchildren who have never met him will discover his book and read and re-read every page spellbound.

Even Oskar Roehler isn't someone that I would call a "celebrity". He's a minor author and director with only limited fame even in Germany. He wrote his autobiography in 2011 and filmed it in 2013. That's a luxury that I don't have. My life story will never be filmed, but I'll be glad if the text version will travel around the Internet and be archived somewhere forever, waiting to be rediscovered a hundred years from now.

It would be interesting to share opinions with someone like Oskar Roehler who has written an autobiography. I'm in something of a dilemma. In what I've written so far I've included some very personal details about my ex-wife, negative things that will embarrass her when she realises that they've been made public. I feel tempted to omit them, because I still love her and want to spare her the embarrassment, but some of these things are very important, because I need to explain why I left her. Oskar puts his father in a bad light, but he was already dead at the time the book was published. For instance, Oskar says that his father had sex with his mother when he was watching as a young child. I don't know if this was illegal in Germany, but to me it's very disturbing. Would Oskar have written this in his book while his father was still alive? That's what I would like to ask him.

J├╝rgen Vogel as Erich Roehler (1949)

Now to the film itself. The film opens in 1949 in Steinach, Bavaria, when Oskar's grandfather Erich Roehler returns from Russian captivity. At first Erich's wife Elisabeth won't let him in, because she became a lesbian during the war and is now living with Erich's sister Marie. Finally the three of them live together, Elisabeth sleeping with Marie while Erich uses the guest room. There are also three children in the house who were born before Erich went to the eastern front. Erich founds a company that makes garden gnomes. He throws Marie out of the house. Elisabeth leaves with her, but returns a few years later for the sake of the children.

Then the focus turns to Klaus Roehler, Oskar's father and Erich's oldest son. He begins his adult life working in his father's factory, but in his mid 20's he goes back to school to get his Abitur (the German high school diploma), and then goes to university in Cologne. Klaus is an avid existentialist, and it's his wish to become an author. He dates a girl called Gisela, the daughter of a top manager at Siemens. First the relationship is casual, until he finds out that she also reads the books of Jean-Paul Sartre. He has sex with her in 1958. According to the film she was only 15 at the time, which created problems with her parents, and they sent her to Vienna to keep them apart. (According to Wikipedia she was born in 1937, so she must have been 20. Did Oskar get it wrong?) While in Vienna she discovers that she is pregnant. She wants to get an abortion, but Klaus insists that they get married as soon as possible. And Oskar is born.

Moritz Bleibtreu as Klaus Roehler (1962) with Gisela

Klaus gets a job at a radio station, while Gisela stays at home, but she is an awful mother who neglects her son. She wants to be a writer, so she locks herself in her room typing while Oskar crawls around the apartment with dirty nappies. As Oskar gets older Klaus and Gisela fight a lot, but they also have frequent sex, not caring if Oskar is standing watching. When Oskar is three Gisela meets the owner of the Rowohlt publishing house at a party and leaves Klaus to be with him.

Klaus moves to Berlin in the mid 1960's and gets involved with the Communist scene, even mixing with members of the terrorist scene. He has a string of lovers, and it remains common for Oskar to watch his father have sex. One of his lovers even invites Oskar to join in, although Klaus refuses. Oskar grows up as a delinquent, already smoking at the age of seven. His maternal grandparents take him into their home for his own safety. Unfortunately he becomes too rebellious for his grandfather to put up with him, so when he's 13 he's sent to a boarding school.

Leonard Scheicher as Oskar Roehler (1976)

The film ends with Oskar at the age of 18 making contact with his mother for the first time since she left home. She's now a successful writer of left-wing literature, and she no longer lives with the publisher. I suppose she didn't need him any more. She's a disgusting creature, boasting about how she fights Capitalism by following old rich people and robbing them. She sits getting drunk, blowing smoke in Oskar's face, and babbling on about Communist theory. She boldly states that Communists have big penises and Capitalists have small penises. As Oskar leaves, determined never to visit his mother again, her last words are that Klaus wasn't his real father. She had had sex with a Jew on a bridge in Vienna.

The story is a fascinating picture of a man's early life. It makes me want to know more. I know about Oskar Roehler's first 18 years, but what has he been doing since?

The real Oskar Roehler

P.S. In the film the names of the characters have been changed. For instance, Oskar Roehler is called Robert Freytag. I'm not sure why this has been done, but in my review I've used the real names.

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