Gilbey on Film: low-budget thrills

The star of Frownland breaks through the slickness of movie acting.

Oh, the giddy thrill of chancing upon a newcomer to screen acting. We've already marvelled at Tahar Rahim, who holds his own in every scene of A Prophet (and will be seen next year in Kevin Macdonald's The Eagle of the Ninth). And despite having four years' worth of zero-budget "mumblecore" films under her belt, Greta Gerwig came to most audiences' attention this year with her unguarded performance in Greenberg.

Now Dore Mann, in the new picture Frownland, breaks through the gloss and slickness generally associated with screen acting. I say the film is new, but that only applies to the UK. It was finished in 2007. Its writer-director, a former projectionist named Ronald Bronstein, hasn't confirmed how long the movie took to make, though he admits he stopped counting at three years.

In 2008, Bronstein distributed Frownland himself in the US after it played on the festival circuit. It begins at London's ICA this Friday, and screens until the end of the month.

The film concerns Keith (played by Mann), a psychotically dysfunctional Brooklyn coupon salesman, and the various warped or disintegrating relationships in his life. Bronstein was influenced by the early work of Mike Leigh, particularly Bleak Moments and Nuts in May, and it shows: the camera is unflinching in its inventory of Keith's emotional paralysis. (Any scene in which he succeeds in reaching the end of a sentence without stammering himself into a frenzy, or being crushingly humiliated, counts as upbeat.)

Bronstein describes Frownland as "a movie that, like me, can't quite tell whether it loves or hates people, and instead careens back and forth between the two in a queasy, confused kind of way."

I'm particularly fascinated by the fearless Mann, who appears to have done no other acting either before or since Frownland, but who radiates a raw authenticity untouched by technique. There is a downtrodden, slobby humour to his work here -- he makes Paul Giamatti look like George Clooney -- and yet no part of his performance is addressed to, or even explicitly acknowledges, the audience. Watching Mann makes you remember the first time it hit you that cinema is voyeurism.

"I met Dore at a family funeral," Bronstein has said, "and within a couple of minutes I knew I wanted to build a project around him... [He] is just a spastic powerhouse of talent. He was driven to basically expend every drop of his creative self for the sake of his role... to the point that we really haven't had all that much to say to each other since the production wound down."

He expands on this, and his own working process, in a fantastically thorough interview with Slant magazine:

I decided I want to be as surprised by the process of making a movie as I am by life itself. I found people that I thought were suited to the roles, and would feed the ideas to them and build the characters and concepts with them. Through massive amounts of rehearsals I would flesh out those scenes and the ideas of those scenes -- how best to communicate those ideas through their natural speech patterns -- and then I would go home and transcribe those rehearsal sessions. I ended up with hundreds and hundreds of pages, which I would then pare down, so it was like writing with somebody's brain instead of writing with a pen. [Dore]... is an amazing guy, and is not the guy in the movie. It's a performance, but he's still tapping into something in himself... I'm looking to sculpt characters out of raw personality, rather than try and knock a square peg through the round hole of whatever character I have pre-conceived. Dore is an insecure person, but very confident about expressing that insecurity in front of a camera. He was hell-bent on taking what he felt were the ugliest sides of his personality and purging them in the movie.

Explaining how the on-screen relationship between Keith and his sort-of girlfriend Mary was built up using off-camera improvisation (again harking back to Leigh's method), Bronstein reveals that he engineered an internet relationship between the respective actors:

They started meeting online every night, with me supervising and setting up the time. She had her little AOL profile, and Dore contacted Mary online, in character, and before I knew it that relationship sprung to life. I have a couple of hundred pages of transcripts of all their emails and instant messaging and all that nonsense. It got to the point where this was getting interesting, and they decided to meet. Again, in character, Dore was very nervous and excited about this, but the second that they met, everything started to fall apart very quickly. They just had no rapport, in a way that was interesting. I decided the entry point for them in the movie would be at a point where the relationship was beyond resuscitation. That's what happened. Once something terrible happened with them, to the point where he thought he would never see her again, the movie starts at exactly that point where she shows up.

Mann's performance has not wanted for acclaim. The sparky critic and writer Neil Young has made room for it in the upper reaches of his ongoing and diligent list of the finest performances of the decade. I haven't found any interviews with Mann, but a statement on his MySpace page , written shortly after completing Frownland, reads:

Just finished acting in and creatively contributing to a feature film (a Cassavetes-style character study if that means anything). I have a bottomless appetite for art, history, psychology and learning in general. Though perhaps that sounds a bit dry. Academia aside, I have a very active sense of humour and look for the same in others (just ask to see my Kabuki-style Bill Cosby impression and you'll see what I mean).

If he never acts again, and never wants to, his reputation is assured.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis