By Birgit Schrumpf
I am sure the Hamburg Filmfest organizers did not have a focus on death in mind when choosing the most interesting films. Death is nothing new in film but, as our society changes, so does film making, and in particular the handling of some themes. It just so happened that during this year’s Filmfest I saw eleven films with death involved, out of a total of 29 screenings that I watched. This does not mean it was an altogether sad experience. On the contrary, some scenes were funny (Chicken with Plums), some beautifully light-hearted but touching (Restless). Sometimes the death of a loved one can open up a totally new perspective on life (Simon and the Oaks). The death of a stranger can even bring an unexpected career boost (The Minister). In each movie this subject was treated differently. It could be thought-provoking or evoke a pensive mood, appreciating one’s own life. Below I would like to give a few examples of the films in question:
Stopped on Track
How does one prepare for death? This is a very personal question and people will react differently when diagnosed with a brain tumour. After this very realistically filmed portrait of a “normal” family living on the outskirts of Berlin and the unforeseen situations they are facing, one feels much better prepared, accepting death as part of life. (see also detailed review)
One morning the body of the beloved teacher Martine dangles from the ceiling of the classroom. Monsieur Lazhar, who is stepping in as the replacement teacher, helps to deal with the shock. (see also detailed review)
Enoch, a listless young man, spends his days crashing funeral ceremonies. Death haunts him. His parents died in a car accident and were buried before he woke up from a three-month coma. Vivacious Annabel, loving life and ignoring her cancer diagnosis, befriends the quiet Enoch, drawing him out of his shell. A gentle and touching love story develops between them. When the end comes, Enoch has learned to let go, finding his way back to a positive life. This very romantic film, moving between reality and a dream world is photographed in beautiful autumn colours.
Chicken with Plums
Nasser Ali Khan wants to die when his beloved violin has been smashed in anger by his frustrated wife. But what would be the best way? He draws the curtains, lies down on his bed, musingly smokes his cigarette, stops eating and awaits death. During the next eight days his mind travels back into the past, meeting with his sweetheart and his old teacher and holding long discussions with death. A romantic, old-fashioned love story by Marjane Satrapi and based on her tragicomic graphic novel filmed in the style of the 1950s.
The following films don’t deal with death as a main theme but every time when someone dies, it has an impact
on the living, influencing their lives:
Don’t be deceived by the title. Yes, Lucy, the young university student is a beauty, sleeping like an angel. But it is no prince kissing her awake in the beautiful villa, where old men are served by half-naked women. This well performed Australian movie with perfect editing holds the subtle tension right to the end. Death comes quietly and peacefully – but with a shock to the surviving.
The film starts with a bus accident where 18 youths died. The minister speaks a few words to the press. His life is hectic. It is so hectic that he urges his chauffeur to drive faster, taking an illegal shortcut on an unfinished auto route. The car skids and crashes brutally. Miraculously, he is the only survivor. He is the hero of the day, ironically profiting from the death of his faithful driver, for whose death he is actually responsible. Politics is portrayed as a ruthless business.
Simon and the Oaks
When Simon experiences the death of a beloved person, his overwhelming sadness sets free all penned-up emotions, finally leading him to a different understanding of his artistic talent. An emotional family saga set in rural Sweden.
The Music Never Stopped
Due to a brain tumour Gabriel has severe amnesia and no memory beyond his teenage years. With the help of a music therapist, his father Henry finds a way of communicating. After Henry dies, who is there to join Gabriel in his 1960’s time capsule?
Granny gets pushed around by her son and adult grandson, both competing for her favour and quarrelling with each other. Whilst on the way to a “nice” old age home for her, she complains of stomach pain. They stop at the hospital. This is the last time we see her. Unexpectedly, she passes away. Everyone is sad but all family problems are solved. Did she prefer a place in heaven rather than the old age home?
The substitute teacher keeps his calm. It is not easy to bond with any of the unruly students. But even in the greatest chaos he stays detached. The film ends with the shocking suicide of a troubled teenage schoolgirl eating a home-baked, poisoned chocolate muffin in front of her favoured teacher and in full view of her classmates. A dramatically sad death!
The Dry Valley
Based on a mystical novel by Ivan Bunin (first Russian Nobel Prize winner) and set in the god-forsaken Dry Valley, the film portrays life of the rich landowners and their naive servants during the late 19th century. A harsh story told in a poetic way with a misty landscape as a backdrop. When the dead body of the arrogant master is found in the ruins of his burnt-down country house, no one is mourning him. Symbolically, this is meant to mark the steady decline of the aristocratic power in Russia.