Show Hide image

Review: The Turin Horse and iLL Manors

Stillness teaches you far more about life than action, writes Ryan Gilbey.

The Turin Horse (15)

dir: Béla Tarr

iLL Manors (18)

dir: Ben Drew

A veteran film-maker bids farewell this month, apparently having exhausted his creative voice, only to have his place filled by a cocky newcomer. Out of cinema’s multi-storey car park goes the 56-year-old Hungarian heavyweight Béla Tarr in his majestic, plodding horse and cart. And into the space vacated screeches Ben Drew, aka Plan B, in his metaphorical Porsche 911. Drew now adds writer-director to a CV that also includes rapper, singer, songwriter, actor and, for all we know, manicurist and milliner.

I would love to report that it is Drew who has made the existentialist study of life on a tempest-ravaged rural plain, while Béla Tarr has shot the hip-hop thriller about grungy east London gangsters, but the truth conforms more narrowly to expectation. The Turin Horse, which Tarr has promised will be his final film, opens with a voice recounting the tale that lends the work its title and its mournful mood: in late-19th-century Turin, Friedrich Nietzsche flung his arms around a horse that was being whipped, and descended into silent insanity. The picture has sparse dialogue, but that is usually the least vital part of any Tarr film, not to mention the most pretentious. Meaning is discernible largely through Fred Kelemen’s stately grey cinematography and Mihály Víg’s score – a remorseless, circular organ figure that suggests a carousel operated by inconsolable pessimists.

On an isolated farm, a woman (Erika Bók) wakes and dresses her father, Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi). She trudges to the well and back, hair whipped by the furious wind into Rorschach splats against the white canvas of sky. Ohls­dorfer staggers into the dust-storm to retrieve his horse from the stable. But the beast, no idiot, it seems, refuses to budge even on pain of a thrashing. What can he know? Possibly that it never ends well for animals in art-house cinema (Au hasard Balthazar, anyone?) and that, all things considered, he’s better off staying put. Back inside, Daughter makes dinner. It’s potato. (It’s always potato.) Ohlsdorfer claws apart the steaming orb on his tin plate. This is what it means to live in a world without mercy, without hope, without Spudulike.

Unusual events disrupt the characters’ near-mute tedium. A neighbour arrives to borrow some pálinka and starts ranting uncontrollably like Lucky in Waiting for Godot. (What must he be like after he’s knocked back the pálinka?) A gypsy wagon careers on to the land uninvited. As father and daughter stare into the empty well, or face each other across the dark room, Tarr achieves a distillation of misery and futility. The director said recently: “You know what I want? You have to resist. You have to resist, against me. If you do, I’m glad.” I think a lot of people who see The Turin Horse are going to make him very glad indeed.

Tarr’s cinema has always had the air of the endurance test, coupled with an emphasis on quantity as well as quality. The Turin Horse is divided into six days, a pointedly biblical number that hints at his decision to bow out of film-making. (On the seventh day, presumably, he rested.) At its most extreme, his long, mobile, unbroken takes can result in a seven-and-a-half-hour work such as Sátántangó. But even in The Turin Horse, a mere foal at 146 minutes, our sense of the hours passing is crucial to its weight.

In each minute that elapses without any lily-livered cuts, there is an implicit tension. As I watched the film, I used the five-bar-gate method (as seen, perhaps not coincidentally, whenever convicts mark time in a prison movie) to note each new shot. In the whole two and
a half hours, there were only 30 cuts, which is roughly the number of edits in the first few minutes alone of Drew’s iLL Manors. It would be invidious to judge the two films using only this yardstick, but it is still fascinating to compare the baked-in suspense achieved through Tarr’s prolonged takes to the more superficially rousing cutting style that characterises the cinema of attack.

iLL Manors seeks to expose the truth of “broken Britain”, but it is to the titillating species of action cinema and misery porn that it belongs. The busy-bee screenplay flits across an assortment of dealers, crooks and junkies as well as the greenhorns drawn into their orbit. Drew casts a sharp anthropological eye over the street-corner pecking order. The preyed-upon repair their wounded egos by snacking on those lower down the food chain. Somehow there is never any shortage of tasty young lambs.

The cycle of abuse links each character, from the dealer Aaron (Riz Ahmed), whose haste to apportion blame for a theft leads to the sickening exploitation of an innocent woman, to the trafficked immigrant Katya (Natalie Press), whose baby is sold for a couple of grand in a pub. Everyone here is connected through six degrees of degradation.

A special relish reserved for violence and sexual humiliation, cut together in excitable montages, betrays the immaturity of the storytelling style. The pop-video interludes are stubbornly uncinematic; you don’t need to be Robert McKee to see that these backstories crassly packaged as lyrics (“She was once a princess/Now she’s a mess/Sexually abused as a child . . .”) don’t do the job of screenwriting. As for a film that begins by warning viewers that they are in for a harrowing ride – well, can’t we be the judge of that? There are uncomfortable scenes, to be sure, but by the time a junkie dozes off in front of a three-bar fire with a child locked in the next room, the film has strayed into parody.

iLL Manors is no disgrace, but a director who aspires to authenticity should leave room for leavening humour. And Drew might cock an eye at The Turin Horse for pointers on achieving dramatic effect without giving in every time to an itchy editing finger. The still or restrained camera can be an impressive dramatic tool, the extended shot a piece of cinematic vocabulary to make viewers sweat and squirm like snitches. The sequence of the wagon arriving over the horizon in The Turin Horse, shot entirely from the farmhouse window in real time, is more gripping than anything in iLL Manors.

What makes Tarr’s work so bracing is that it reminds us how to watch films properly; that is, to give everything to the experience or nothing at all. In a culture where a contributor to an arts show can admit without fear of censure to fast-forwarding through passages in a film (as Giles Fraser did when supposedly reviewing Once Upon a Time in Anatolia for Radio 4’s Saturday Review), or when a Guardian columnist confesses to checking emails on his phone at the cinema (that’s Charlie Brooker watching, or not watching, Avengers Assemble), the demands that Tarr places on the viewer feel especially urgent. He chose the wrong time to jump on his horse and skedaddle.

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.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The royal makeover

Jens Schlueter/Getty Images
Show Hide image

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