Wednesday, 1 March 2017

The woman behind the wall (4½ Stars)

In my review of "Shanghai" I specified what I consider to be a film noir. I need to modify my description.

1. There is a murder.

2. There is a man trying to solve the murder, usually a detective.

3. The film is told from the perspective of the man. He is in every scene, so the viewer never knows more than he does. Often there's a voice over to tell the viewer what he's thinking.

4. There is a dangerous woman who distracts the man from solving the murder, a femme fatale.

5. The film's pace is slow, relying on a dark mood rather than action.

In my last description I suggested that film noir is usually a film made in black and white. I made this mistake because all the early examples of film noir were made in black and white. This isn't usual today. A film can be made in brilliant colours and still be a film noir, as often as the five points named above are followed.

This German film, made in 2013, is a perfect example of film noir. Martin is a teenage boy who has just moved to Berlin to study law. The film begins with him looking for a room. As anyone in Berlin can verify, it's difficult to find somewhere to live. Accommodation is scarce and expensive. By chance he meets a house's caretaker who invites him to look at an apartment. The caretaker tells him that the landlady needs a photo of him without his shirt on, which would have been enough to make me run, but Martin is desperate for somewhere to live and goes along with the creepy request.

The apartment is actually half of a large Hinterhof (back yard) apartment. The English translation doesn't do the German word justice. Berlin is known for having rows of large buildings with large quadrangles behind them.

This picture, taken from Google Maps, illustrates the structure. The block is between the four roads Nostitzstraße (top), Bergmannstraße (right), Mehringdamm (bottom) and Gneisenaustraße (left). As you can see at the bottom there can be a Hinterhof behind a Hinterhof behind a Hinterhof. As far as I know, these sorts of buildings are unique to Berlin. In other cities there might be single back yards, but not multiple back yards stretching out behind one another. Hinterhof apartments are generally considered to be depressing places to live, because all you can see from your window is a brick yard and the opposite side of the building. You can look into one another's apartments when the curtains are open. It's like Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window", but a lot closer.

In Martin's case, the apartment has been divided into two by putting a wall in the middle of a corridor. On his side of the wall he has a living room, a bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen. His landlady, Simone, lives behind the wall.

On the opposite side of the yard Martin sees Simone visiting a man in his apartment. He's a musician, a piano player, and Simone sings with him. Martin sees them arguing. He also sees them having sex.

There's a mystery about Robert, the man who lived in the apartment before Martin. There are rumours that he's dead. Martin wants to investigate, but see point 4 in my description of film noir. Simone visits Martin and seduces him. Though not stated explicitly, we can assume that Martin was a virgin when he came to Berlin, so he immediately falls in love with Simone. Unfortunately the musician finds out about it and he's very jealous.

This is a very powerful drama. The first person perspective of the film (point 3 above) puts the viewer into Martin's head. We feel that we're in danger and should run away, but we're helplessly dragged in with him.

The film has only been released in Germany, but the Blu-ray has English subtitles. I strongly recommend it.

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