A few days ago I watched ‘Die Habenichtse’ (‘The Have-nots’), a German movie from 2016, based on an award-winning 2006 novel of the same name.
The plot revolves around Isabelle, a thirtysomething graphic designer, and her romance with and marriage to Jakob, a thirtysomething lawyer. It takes place in both Germany and the UK.
Julia Jentsch was good in the main role, she’s a fine actress. Overall, though the movie was quite dull.
There are two levels to its dullness: one specific to this movie and script, and a much more general kind of dullness which afflicts most movies made within the German public film-subsidy system, as this one was.
Since I think this movie’s a good example of the problems with German movies, I thought I’d take it as an exemplar.
First, a digression. At this point, I don’t think many people would challenge the statement that there’s something wrong with the German movie business. Germany is a large, prosperous, well-educated society. It should be a major player in international cinema. But it punches far below its weight. German movies connect with foreign audiences so rarely that it’s a big story when they do. This is not how it should be: a country with this much talent and funding should produce at least 3-4 German-language movies every year which catch the eye of higher-end international audiences, as is the case for France and Japan, to say nothing of the UK. (German TV series, on the other hand, are steadily improving.)
Instead, Germany produces maybe one movie like this per year, and that’s counting very generously. And even the movies which attract international attention rarely attract international enthusiasm, much less a cult following. The majority of German-language movies produced with film subsidies show to German-only audiences of a couple thousand people, then slide silently into obscurity. German culture-types are generally aware of this underperformance, and respond either with acute analyses (g) or defensive justifications.
Now let me point out the problems with Die Habenichtse.
- The characters never do anything interesting. Isabelle is a graphic designer, but she doesn’t burn with creative energy. She never addresses her work or sources of inspiration. She never says or does anything particularly interesting. The same is true of Jakob the lawyer, although he has a minor nervous breakdown during the movie. A very dull nervous breakdown, which is only hinted at.
- The main characters never say anything interesting. The German characters are neither witty nor insightful nor profound. They spend most of the time silently moping, even when they’re together. There is no repartee, no in-jokes, no chemistry, no sardonic commentary (except for one pretty good joke*). Their arguments are just ordinary spats and disagreements.
- I didn’t care what happened to them. Which is basically a consequence of #1 and #2, plus the fact that the characters weren’t appealing. They weren’t revolting, either. They were just blah.
- The movie actually seemed allergic to anything interesting. Jakob the lawyer works for a law firm which represents the heirs of Holocaust survivors trying to reclaim property in East Germany. Wow! That really does sound interesting, doesn’t it? But perhaps only 10% of the screenplay relates to this work, and you are never shown any interesting details. Nor is there any exploration of the various ethical dilemmas the work raises. The characters hint at these things, but then the thread is dropped, and the story returns to the dull relationship between Jakob and Isabelle. I wanted to grab the director by the lapels and say: “Jesus Christ, can’t you recognize drama, conflict, and moral complexity when you see it? No, don’t drag the script back to Jakob and Isabelle’s relationship! I don’t care about that! Neither does anyone else!” The same thing goes for Isabelle’s art. Instead of learning what drove her to become an artist, how she cultivated her talent, or what her aspirations are, we see her boring fights with her partner.
- The movie was shot in black-and-white for no discernible reason. The action is set in 2001 and 2003 in Berlin and London. The cinematography was competent, even good, but not particularly distinctive or ambitious. Nowadays, there are any number of interesting options between color and black-and-white. Unless there’s a very good reason for doing so, shooting a movie in 2016 solely in black-and-white is an affectation.
- The only interesting characters in the movie were artists, and even they weren’t that interesting. When an American movie needs a character full of soulful wisdom or magic powers or crazy do-anything spontaneity, it often wheels out a tired trope Spike Lee calls the Magical Negro. Germany has its own equally tired trope: the Krazy Kunstler. He (it’s usually a he), dresses and acts real funny, does whatever the funk he wants, follows his impulses no matter where they lead, and speaks the truths no-one else dares to. (Of course, he lives a comfortably middle-class life, and most of his income comes directly or indirectly from the state or rich patrons, but we will discreetly gloss over that.). Yeah, there’s two of those in this picture, one of them actually named “Ginka”. Ginka!
I asked myself: Why was this movie made? The characters do not come from the working class, which is neglected by most movies. They aren’t charming or funny or perceptive. There is only one intense dramatic confrontation in the movie, which is spurred by an implausible sub-plot involving a drug addict who somehow manages to live in a ₤2000/month townhouse apartment in London.
German art-house movies are beset by one all-encompassing fear: seeming too “Hollywood”. German screenwriters and directors are obsessed with being everything Hollywood is not: authentic, modest, naturalistic, low-key, and oblique. German art-house movies are, therefore, peopled with fairly ordinary-looking people with crooked teeth, who don’t give Sorkin-like canned speeches, who make silly mistakes, who may not be very bright or articulate, who aren’t all that appealing, and who spend most of their time just trying to manage ordinary relationships.
This aesthetic is not totally misguided, by any means, and can be refreshing. The crushing idiocy and ubiquity of superhero movies — in fact, the very existence of superhero movies — is a sign of cultural bankruptcy to all thinking persons. Ordinary stories need to be told. The problem, though, is that German movies tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Movies need not be packed with ridiculous characters and stupid catchphrases and bombastic music and relentless, over-the-top conflict.
But they should be at least somewhat more interesting, unusual and/or entertaining than ordinary life.
What else are they for?