Léos Carax, Holy Motors, 2012, 35 mm, color, 116 minutes. Monsieur Oscar and Eva Grace (Denis Lavant and Kylie Minogue).


IN CRONENBERG ON CRONENBERG, the Canadian director said that his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (1983) was, for him, primarily about Christopher Walken’s face. Similarly, Holy Motors (2012), French writer-director Léos Carax’s bold return to feature filmmaking after more than a decade, is largely a multivalent study of Denis Lavant’s body. It is also a brilliantly metatextual, multigenre meditation on what Jean Baudrillard called “the disappearance of the real” in the face of the encroaching digitization of everything, as well as a fictional realization of Erving Goffman’s 1959 classic of sociology, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

Clever but affecting, endlessly referential (to cinema history, old Paris, itself) without feeling hollow and overintellectualized, Holy Motors was an upstart entry at this year’s Cannes festival. There it won the Prix de la Jeunesse (the Youth Prize—an award decided by a small group of cineasts aged eighteen to twenty-five), though the film was notably snubbed by the official jury. Managing to be visually sumptuous, engagingly kinetic, and thumpingly entertaining while flouting most laws of narrative (lacking even the internal “consistency” of dream logic), it is also something of a throwdown to contemporary (particularly American) filmmakers to get off their script-doctored, focus-grouped asses and use their imaginations.

Beginning with a man (Carax) waking up in a hotel room and finding a secret door into a grand, old-fashioned movie house, where a film plays to a motionless, seemingly dead audience, Holy Motors quickly shifts its focus to Lavant, who will play nine different characters in widely divergent contexts over the course of the story, which takes place in one day. The rough-hewn, physically versatile actor, who has starred in most of Carax’s movies, does not merely play nine different roles in films-within-a-film; he is playing a character who plays nine different roles for nine different “appointments” at various Parisian locations, driven (to the end of the night) by a female chauffeur named Céline, portrayed by Edith Scob, best known as the masked young woman in Georges Franju’s supremely creepy Eyes Without a Face (1960). For those who still rue the postmodern turn, Holy Motors may already sound annoying; you’ll have to trust me that it isn’t.

Because Lavant first appears as a paranoid businessman being driven from his suburban mansion into the city, where he emerges to panhandle after disguising himself as an old gypsy woman, viewers may initially expect a hackneyed class-inversion narrative, a kind of arty Trading Places (1983). Several “appointments” later, however, we realize we’re on uncharted ground, both behind the scenes (in the limo) and in the scenes (at the “appointments”) as Lavant moves from role to role, an acting telegram making his daily rounds. The first three scenarios do not require other people to know the characters Lavant impersonates, so the impression is of a jaded rich man getting his kicks by assuming other identities and putting himself in odd situations. As the film progresses, though, Lavant interacts with people who behave as if they recognize and accept him as their father, their ex-lover, etc. There are intimations, in the mode of Philip K. Dick, that he may not be the only person honoring “appointments” all day in various guises, that indeed, maybe we all are.

At another level, Holy Motors is a film about film. Beyond the presence of Scob (who—spoiler alert—dons the mask from her signature role at one point), the movie also includes a cameo from veteran French star Michel Piccoli and a musical sequence featuring Kylie Minogue in Jean Seberg’s Breathless haircut; it reprises an earlier Lavant character from Carax’s Merde, a segment of the 2008 anthology film Tokyo!; and it implicitly links Lavant’s peripatetic, Buster Keaton–like physicality to Étienne-Jules Marey’s late-nineteenth-century chronophotographs of atheletes, which are intercut throughout the film, thereby encompassing the prehistory of cinema. Each “appointment” references a different genre—comedy, noir, melodrama, romance, musical, horror, science fiction, fantasy, magic realism—in a manner at once nostalgic and refreshing. The overarching implication is that as non-video-game-based movies and celluloid itself become obsolete, so too do all things physical—machines, animals, people. From the title on down, the film expresses Carax’s melancholy reverence for the engines—mechanical, emotional, narrative—that drive us from one place to another, to addresses that don’t begin with “www.

Andrew Hultkrans

Holy Motors opens Wednesday, October 17 at Film Forum and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York.

Savage Love

10.08.12

Left: Raoul Walsh, Wild Girl, 1932, 35 mm, black-and-white, 80 minutes. Right: John Francis Dillon, Call Her Savage, 1932, 35 mm, black-and-white, 88 minutes.


FOR THE SECOND YEAR IN A ROW, one of Manhattan’s highest temples of culture pays tribute to the actress once known as the Brooklyn Bonfire. Celebrating its tenth edition, MoMA’s film-preservation series “To Save and Project,” which in 2011 presented Clara Bow’s final movie, Hoop-la (1933), this year screens her penultimate, Call Her Savage (1932), a standout among the seventy-five titles on view.

Racy even by pre-Code standards—and more lurid than anything Lee Daniels could ever dream up—Call Her Savage has whips, booze, dope, v.d., attempted rape and child molestation, intimations of bestiality, girl fights, gay bars, streetwalking, and a dead baby. It was, in short, the perfect comeback vehicle for Bow, who had been dropped by Paramount in 1931 after she suffered a nervous breakdown, brought on by a grueling work schedule, a protracted legal battle with her personal secretary, and a three-week libelous assault by a tabloid called the Coast Reporter. (Studio head B. P. Schulberg, according to Bow biographer David Stenn, referred to his cash cow as “Crisis-a-Day Clara.”)

After a yearlong convalescence on a ranch along the California-Nevada border with her husband-to-be, Bow signed a lucrative two-picture deal with Fox, a contract that gave her enormous creative control. It’s a good thing she rested up, for Call Her Savage, based on a 1931 novel by Tiffany Thayer and directed by John Francis Dillon, demanded quite a workout from its star. In her first scene, Bow, playing an unruly Texas heiress named Nasa, repeatedly shouts Yippee! on her galloping horse. Stopping in the woods, Nasa whips a rattlesnake and then her “half-breed” friend Moonglow (Gilbert Roland), who doesn’t seem to mind the lashing one bit. “Why I am I like this? I hate to get angry but I just can’t help it,” Nasa admits, though it’s hard to concentrate on what Bow says when her nipples are noticeably at attention under her thin organdy blouse.

Yet the boobs and flogging are Merchant-Ivory decorous compared with what follows. Dragged back home by her tycoon father, who grows increasingly beleaguered by his only child (“I can run a railroad, but I’ll be danged if I can run a daughter”), Nasa begins to wrestle with her dog as soon as she enters the front door. This lusty interspecies tussle, Stenn suggests, is “a blatant, tasteless reference” to calumny printed earlier in the Coast Reporter about the actress’s relationship with her dog Duke; the rag avowed that Bow was “as well satisfied with the Great Dane, her frequent boudoir companion, as with creatures of her own kind.” Stars: They’re just like us.

Eloping with a cretin she meets at her debutante ball, Nasa will endure a series of degradations followed by revenge schemes, stopping occasionally to wonder, “Why is there always a fight going on inside me?” before socking some dame in the jaw. After one final brawl, in which she chases away a swish millionaire who could have become her second husband (she divorced the first one after he tried to rape her, his mind ravaged by syphilis and drugs), a weary Nasa returns home to Texas to hear her mother gasp the name of her real father on her deathbed. The “reason” for her horrible impulse control now revealed, Nasa presages other bedeviled mestizas, such as Jennifer Jones (slathered in bronzer) in 1946’s Duel in the Sun, and Cher in her 1973 hit “Half-Breed.” But unlike those tragic heroines, Nasa utters, upon learning the truth, what can only be understood—at least in the context of this crazy movie—as a declaration of racial pride: “I’m glad.”

Melissa Anderson

Call Her Savage screens October 11 and 25 as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s “To Save and Project” series, which runs October 11 through November 12.

Book Smart

10.04.12

Andrea Arnold, Wuthering Heights, 2011, 35 mm, color, 128 minutes. Young Heathcliff and Young Catherine (Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer).


THERE IS A QUAINT DEVICE in old Hollywood adaptations of, say, the Brontë sisters, or Charles Dickens, or Walter Scott, where a leatherbound volume creaks open on-screen, and its pages flutter to the title page under their own power. The printed page then dissolves into the scene itself while the narrator intones the opening lines. Latter-day prestige adaptations no longer belabor the point. Indeed, such an announcement of the literary reference or a reminder of the audible act of reading could only embarrass us as a flashing of credentials. Films such as Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995) or Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre (2011) are independent works of art, we are assured, not full-dress audiobooks.

But if adaptations today, in their high Oscar-worthiness, distance themselves from reading (turning pages, moving one’s lips, skipping ahead), they have also exempted themselves from any interpretative charge—from giving a reading. They are as interpretively neutral as the cinematic conversion of the Bourne novels.

Andrea Arnold’s new film of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, on the other hand, is unapologetically tendentious, arguing a definite perspective on the novel. If a lazy college student might watch a BBC version of the film to avoid having to read the book, Arnold’s version could be a substitute for the professor’s lecture and secondary reading.

This movie will probably be talked about and remembered for casting black actors (Solomon Glave and James Howson) to play Heathcliff. Everything falls into place if you see the character in this way, and in this sense it is utterly faithful to the book. Not that Heathcliff “is” black in the novel, whatever that would mean. But as a reading, it simply works. When I first heard about this casting, I almost slapped my forehead—Of course!—at its obvious brilliance. It’s the most successful thing in the film, so much so that previous adaptations must now appear to us like Orson Welles casting Charlton Heston as a Mexican in Touch of Evil (1958) or Welles’s own performance as Othello (1952).

When Heathcliff first arrives at Wuthering Heights, a child rescued from the streets and brought into a less-than-welcoming family, he can hardly form English words. Instead of speaking or interacting, he is an observer. Almost every scene in the movie involves his looking through a window, through a door left ajar, through the trellis work of his fingers—he is a spectator forever hunched into some hiding space. It’s not a world that he is shut off from, but one that he is shut up within. The key image here is the Earnshaws’ cabinet-like bed, which splits the difference between private refuge and punitive confinement. Sexuality is like this, too: Heathcliff and Cathy aren’t star-crossed lovers mourning the impossibility of being together; they rather take a perverse pleasure in inflicting themselves on each other. Far from an insurmountable separation, their relationship looks more like claustrophobia.

If Heathcliff looks much more than he speaks, there is actually very little dialogue between any of the characters—if dialogue means people talking to each other. Speech here is always giving orders, or demanding apologies, or dictating what someone else should feel, or powerlessly flailing out: “Fuck you all, you cunts!” or “Nigger.” Talk is at others. When Heathcliff tells Catherine, “My life has been bitter since I last heard your voice. I kept going only for you,” this is a disarming cri de coeur, yes, but it is also a threat. He is outlining just what he plans to exact from her, almost in revenge.

There’s a scene in Arnold’s previous film, Fish Tank, where a distressed teenage girl comes across a horse tethered to a trailer in a vacant lot. She tries to free the horse, but she can’t cut through the padlock. We, who are not distressed teenage girls, can only ask what good it would do to free the horse. Enfeebled by captivity, let loose among council flats, the horse could only starve to death, or get hit by a car, or injure itself, or worse. This is not a world to be set free in. Heathcliff’s fate is like this. Early in the story, when he is virtually enslaved by Hindley Earnshaw, repeatedly beaten, and treated like an animal, all we wish for is for him to escape. But when he gains his freedom, and even some measure of revenge on Hindley, everything still remains closed off for him except to listlessly roam the premises of Thrushcross Grange until he is battered and starved and crawls off somewhere to die.

Arnold focuses almost entirely on Heathcliff, excising the novel’s frame narrative along with much of the labyrinthine Victorian inheritance plot, and about twenty years of the story. By cutting away what is chatty and intricate, Arnold believes that she is directly grasping what is immediate and strongly felt at the core of Brontë’s novel. But the readerly task of clearing away the brush, of trying to catch a glimpse, of sorting out competing narratives—is itself what is meaningful. Longing, in its naked being-there, is less interesting than when sighted awry. The result is that Arnold’s movie essentially stalls after the halfway mark. This could be read generously, as a comment on how the characters remain rooted in their childhood selves, as stunted in their growth as the contorted trees bent over by the upland winds. But it is simply tedious. Lyrical expressivity and unmuted feeling are in fact childish, juvenile.

And while all of this incommunicable hurt and longing remains true, deeply true to Brontë’s vision, what ought to have been haunting images about the wringing-dry of the human soul instead comes across as a very smart, well-researched lecture about discursivity, fixation, and the racial other. To dwell too long on the profound and unutterable, of course, ends by conjuring up a fantasy of access. Arnold’s “no filter” aesthetic, which owes much to the unflinching directness of the Dardenne brothers, works best when she is disclosing how emotional life exists not directly but only through its obfuscations and framings. So, in clearing away everything but the agonized yearning of Heathcliff for his own self within Cathy, Arnold has only rediscovered an even drearier tome than the literary classic: academia’s conventional wisdom.

Ben Parker

Wuthering Heights opens Friday, October 5 at Film Forum in New York.

Left: David Gatten, The Extravagant Shadows, 2012, color, digital cinema package, 175 minutes. Right: Nicolas Rey, anders, Molussien (differently, Molussia), 2012, color, 16 mm, 81 minutes.


LIKE THE FIFTIETH New York Film Festival of which it is a part, this year’s Views from the Avant-Garde includes both old and new works. With twenty-three programs, it’s the most ambitious Views slate to date. Films by such giants as Chris Marker (Sans Soleil, 1982) and Raúl Ruiz (The Blind Owl, 1987) stand alongside new feature-length works by Stephen Dwoskin, David Gatten, Mike Gibisser, Phil Solomon, James Benning, Luke Fowler, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jeff Preiss, Peter Bo Rappmund, and Nicolas Rey. Programs devoted to individual artists (e.g., Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler) alternate with anthology programs featuring Views stalwarts like Peggy Ahwesh, Lewis Klahr, Ben Russell, Ben Rivers, Joe Gibbons, Erin Espelie, Paolo Gioli, Janie Geiser, Vincent Grenier, Luther Price, and Daichi Saito, among others. Legendary filmmakers Ernie Gehr and Peter Kubelka are also on hand, the latter with a double-screen projection and installation incorporating his seminal Arnulf Rainer (1958–60) and Antiphon, a new work.

The range of thematic concerns is as varied as that of the directors’ audio/video interests and media formats. Rappmund’s mesmerizing Tectonics is driven by sheer sonic and pictorial virtuosity, while Rey’s anders, Molussien plays with the temporal structure of a narrative read over disparate images. Traditional literary texts loom large in David Gatten’s The Extravagant Shadows, but for the first time the artist works with digital. In The Creation As We Saw It, Rivers continues his fervent investigations of unusual but natural phenomena. And Preiss’s Stop, which includes material from 1995 to 2012, proves the diary film an enduring form.

Both Dwoskin’s Age Is… and Gibisser’s The Day of Two Noons are stirring documents, altogether different in approach and tone. The former is an unblinking meditation on its titular subject, as seen through the beautiful faces on which the effects of long life are eloquently etched. It begins with an extreme close-up of half a face, as the fingers of one hand move involuntarily at the bottom of the frame. Dwoskin, who died earlier this year and whose work is overdue for reappraisal, believed in the revelatory powers of the camera, a quality celebrated in his book, Film Is… (1975), and one espoused by film theorists from the 1930s to André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer. The key point of that belief was that if a camera looks hard and long enough at any segment of the world, it can disclose otherwise imperceptible aspects of reality. Like Dwoskin’s earlier work, the body consciousness in Age Is… is inseparable from its style. Avoiding the lachrymose and the maudlin, the camera all but grazes the faces and hands of the aged—what the filmmaker calls their “parchment”—framing them bluntly and dwelling on them at length. One woman looks into an off-screen mirror while tracing the lines of her brow and cheeks with a blue pencil, highlighting every impression left by time. Another woman’s heavily veined, be-ringed hands strive to conceal trembling signs of debilitating disease. Some portraits are animated by minimal scans made by Dwoskin from his wheelchair. Occasionally, he appears, head tilting back to catch his breath—no less a testament to time and the object of the camera’s gaze than those he photographs. In contrast to these affecting “still lifes,” several elders are seen at home still caring for themselves. A final shot tracks a man negotiating a forest path, his slow progress both invigorated and belied by the green lushness around him. Though an eschewal of dialogue and narration enforces the work’s sober concentration, it is also, at times, enhanced by Alexander Balanescu’s limpid score, its elastic strings delicately tuned to the tentative gestures of Dwoskin’s human subjects.

Left and right: Mike Gibisser, The Day of Two Noons, 2012, color, 67 minutes.


Mike Gibisser’s The Day of Two Noons, on the other hand, pits the aging process against the efforts of an encroaching modernism to standardize, and thereby distort, “real” time. Gibisser prefaces the work with a quote from Giorgio Agamben’s 1978 “Time and History: Critique of the Instant and the Continuum,” the tensions and connotations of the latter terms resonating throughout the film. From its first image of an elegant clock, its inner mechanisms working away, timepieces abound, just as initial shots of—we presume—the filmmaker’s grandmother introduce the theme of aging and illness repeated throughout. The ailing woman’s poignant complaint about the unrelieved boredom of her inactive life in itself embodies a continuum comprising uneventful instants. As she speaks, the sound of a locomotive intrudes, bridging her world to the past: a black-and-white re-creation of the historic meeting of two locomotives at a site now a national landmark. This counterpoint of home truths with reflections on the nineteenth-century developments that transformed modern life constitutes the film’s unique structure.

Time and travel, the instant and the continuum, are linked to the relationship of still photography to experiments with motion pictures. A photo of railroad tycoon Leland Stanford is followed by a passage from Hollis Frampton’s 1973 Artforum essay on Eadweard Muybridge, who conducted locomotion studies at Stanford’s farm in Palo Alto. As we read of Muybridge’s “last major work of still photography”—an immense 360-degree panorama of San Francisco composed of thirteen panels—we watch Gibisser’s stunning 360-degree panoramic shot of a vast landscape. The film documents how the railroad’s linking of America’s coasts led to efforts in 1883 to establish a uniform system of standard time. While acknowledging the inevitability of this necessity, Gibisser cannot resist spoofing its existential falsehood by printing the formalities for establishing time zones over an image of his grandfather impishly mugging at the camera.

Gibisser plays wittily with the laws of physics which the invention of cinema made possible, reversing the movement of smoke emitted from a steam engine, or sending the majestic flow of a waterfall back to its source. He links these Méliès-like moments with Muybridge, whose own paradoxically still photographs of waterfalls revealed a pre-historic fascination with the as yet unrealized fact of motion pictures.

Tony Pipolo

The sixteenth Views from the Avant-Garde runs Thursday, October 4–Monday, October 8. A select portion of these films will be made available online beginning October 9. Views is part of the fiftieth New York Film Festival, which runs through Sunday, October 14 at Lincoln Center.

Ted Kotcheff, Wake in Fright, 1971, color, 35 mm, 116 minutes. Left: Doc Tydon and John Grant (Donald Pleasence and Gary Bond). Right: Joe, John Grant, Doc Tydon, and Dick (Peter Whittle, Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, and Jack Thompson).


OUTBACK AUSTRALIA is an inhospitable environment. The light is blinding, the heat searing, and the arid, burnt-earth expanse goes on forever. Yet, ironically, it is the hospitality of those hardy souls desperate or crazy enough to live there that poses the greatest threat to civilized mind and body. Wake in Fright (1971) contrives to ensnare an educated city boy in the hard-drinking, hypermasculine pastimes of a fictional, but all-too-real, outback mining town named—as if to summon the Aussie drawl—Bundanyabba. A reasonably faithful adaptation of Australian author Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel of the same title, the film is the bastard child of a nascent collaboration between Australian and American production companies. Directed by Ted Kotcheff, a Canadian then working in British TV, scripted by a white Jamaican, with the lead roles played by English actors (and supporting roles played mostly by Australian actors), this multinational effort is nonetheless a painfully accurate portrayal of the cruel conviviality—on condition of collective inebriation—that characterized the old, beer-and-Scotch-sloshed Australia.

The narrative arc is entropic: Said city boy, John Grant (Gary Bond), who is paying down his debt to the education department by teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in the middle of nowhere, becomes stranded in “the Yabba” en route to Sydney for summer vacation. Blowing his wad on a “two-up” game that he had hoped would release him from financial bondage, Grant reluctantly submits to the kindness of strangers and is thereby drawn into a boozy maelstrom of moronic male bonding that quickly strips him of all sense and dignity. The descent into madness culminates in a horrifying kangaroo hunt that devolves into sexualized violence: Post slaughter, macho knuckleheads Dick (Jack Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle) square off in a drunken brawl that edges slowly toward merged unconsciousness, while “Doc” Tydon (Donald Pleasence), an amoral, alcoholic doctor taking refuge in “the Yabba,” waxes philosophical to Grant, who, paralytic, passes out. Rallying, Grant spirals deeper into oblivion back at Doc’s shack where more booze and gunplay lead to a semiconscious libidinal encounter. Upon regaining his senses, Grant tries to hitch a ride to Sydney, but, owing to a miscommunication, gets taken back to the Yabba. Having finally reached the end of his rope, our beaten-down protagonist attempts to off himself but instead winds up in the local hospital, spending the rest of his vacation in recovery.

Blending the psychological horror genre with cultural anthropology and fictive documentary, Wake in Fright mercilessly skewers and debunks two of Australia’s proudest mythologies—the moral rectitude of Aussie “mateship” and the romantic mystique attached to the outback terrain. Shocking in its day—the brutal hunting scenes, for instance, laid waste to the saccharine fantasy of environmental harmony promoted by the anthropomorphizing adventures of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (a hugely popular TV series launched in 1966—think Lassie or Flipper but with bizarre marsupial heroics)—the film provided a savage riposte to the operative models of Australian masculinity, Grant’s arrogantly cultured persona included. Consequently, in my mind, Paul Hogan’s lovable larrikin Crocodile Dundee will be forever stalked by the malevolent stupidity of Jack Thompson’s WiF character, and the populist desert idyll promoted by canonical colonialist art and literature will always be haunted by the image of shitfaced bozos tearing up the landscape in a battered V8, running down ’roos. Neither a redeeming journey of self-discovery nor a visual paean to majestic outback vistas, Wake in Fright is most remarkable for its unexpurgated depiction of life at the perimeter of a peripheral Commonwealth nation, spinning a tale—that rings utterly true—of culture and consciousness unraveling at the frayed edge of Western civilization.

Jeff Gibson

A new 35-mm print of Wake in Fright will be screened at Film Forum in New York, October 5 through October 11.

Left: Alexander Kluge presenting the Oberhausen Manifesto at a press conference during the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, Germany, February 28, 1962. Right: Wim Wenders, Alice in den Städten (Alice in the Cities), 1974, 16 mm, black and white, 110 minutes. Alice (Yella Rottländer) and Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler).


Oberhausen Manifesto 1962: Short Films by the Signatories, 1958–67” runs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from Thursday, September 27 through Sunday, September 30, 2012.

A HANDFUL OF WORDS in large type filled a page of the West German journal Filmstudio’s spring 1962 issue. The editors’ telegraphic message—devoid of punctuation and eccentric in its line breaks—proclaimed:

Papas cinema
is dead mani
festo of the yo
ung 1962 ho
pe or
disaster

By the time that issue of Filmstudio appeared, the manifesto in question was well known, even notorious, among observers of the film scene in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), who were fiercely divided in their reactions to the dramatic intervention of twenty-six brash young and aspiring filmmakers at a press conference held on February 28, 1962, during the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. In an expression of Oedipal outrage, these earnest young men—and it bespeaks the times that they were all men—assailed what they deemed to be a spiritually arid and intellectually bankrupt national cinema, announcing their intention to bring to it creative redemption and intellectual renewal. Blending harsh critique with constructive resolve, the succinct statement—its concision itself a blunt instrument—announced “the collapse of the conventional German film,” reiterating the news of its demise in the emphatic closing, which declared that “the old film is dead” before expressing a certain optimism: “We believe in the new one.” Both a devastating prognosis and a program for renewal, the document demanded a departure from the past and sketched a design for the future. Indeed, this promise of a fresh start bore a curious resemblance to the wishful thinking of Stunde Null (or “zero hour”) rhetoric that had circulated in Germany directly after World War II, with its tacit belief that one might start from scratch.

This fabled document, now hallowed as the Oberhausen Manifesto, provided the founding myth for what would become the Young German Film and, later, the New German Cinema. Against formidable odds, the manifesto precipitated radical changes in the way films in West Germany were funded and made, and it profoundly changed the equation with respect to the question of who would make them, with an immediacy, a vehemence, and a pertinacity that are truly astonishing. (One need only compare the efficacy of Oberhausen to that of the “First Statement of the New American Cinema Group,” also issued in 1962, to prove the point.) And if only a very few of the filmmakers who endorsed the statement would ultimately achieve some measure of international renown, the manifesto undeniably forced the opening that made possible the extraordinary creative outpourings—of the likes of Werner Schroeter, Volker Schlöndorff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, and Werner Herzog—that put German film at the forefront of international cinema during the 1970s and ’80s. As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the document’s signing, we would do well to recall the energies that spawned this now legendary pronouncement—and gave it such potency. But, at the same time, we must be alert to the more ambivalent (and less commented on) aspects of this remarkable legacy.